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A Way with Words Podcast by Grant Barrett

A Way with Words Podcast

by Grant Barrett

Product Details

Running Time
50 Min.
Offered
Weekly

Description

A Way with Words is public radio's humorous hour-long call-in show about the English language with authors and language experts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.


People Who Liked A Way with Words Podcast Also Liked These Podcasts:
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Coast Is Clear - 24 April 2017


Mon, Apr 24, 2017


In the military, if you've "lost the bubble," then you can't find your bearings. The term first referred to calibrating the position of aircraft and submarines. And the phrase "the coast is clear" may originate in watching for invaders arriving by sea. Plus, a dispute over how to pronounce the name of a savory avocado dip. Finally, one more place where people are starting sentences with the word "So"--during prayers at church. Also: elbow clerk, smitten, Tennyson's brook, fussbudget vs. fuss-bucket, clinomania, and 50k south of Woop Woop.


FULL DETAILS

Our conversation about goofy German Antiwitze prompts listeners to send in their own silly jokes. For example: What's the difference between a duck? A pencil, because a duck has no sleeves!

A brother and sister in Elgin, Illinois, disagree about how to pronounce guacamole. She argues that it rhymes with whack-a-mole. She's wrong.

Speaking to a conference of judges and lawyers, Grant learns the term elbow clerk, meaning a clerk who works in the judge's chambers.

A woman in Vancouver, Washington, wants to know the origin of the phrase the coast is clear, meaning "it's safe to proceed." It most likely has to do with a literal coast, whether from the perspective of a ship at sea or guards patrolling the shoreline. The Spanish equivalent No hay Moros en la costa translates literally as "There are no Moors on the coast."

Why does it seem that more and more people start responses to a question with the word So? After hearing our discussion about sentence-initial so, a Nashville, Tennessee, churchgoer calls to say that he often hears something similar at the beginning of a prayer after a sermon or to conclude a service.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about people whose names are words. For example, if he asks, "Is the comedian who was one of the Three Amigos vertically challenged?" you'd answer with name of a funny man whose last name is also an adjective.

A woman who is fond of the word smitten is curious about about the word's origin. Smitten is the past participle of "smite," so if you're smitten with someone, you're struck by them, metaphorically speaking.

A San Antonio, Texas, woman who has taught at the Defense Language Institute at Lackland Air Force Base, says one of her Spanish-speaking students taught her the equivalent of the pot calling the kettle black: el conejo gritando orejon, which translates literally as "the rabbit yelling 'big ears.'"

A listener in Marquette, Michigan, says her daughters criticize her for saying Where you at? They argue that the word at in this case is unnecessary. In many cases, this phrase is indeed a pleonasm, but Grant explains that in some contexts this use of the word at plays a particular linguistic role to convey additional meaning.

In response to our conversation about euphemistic terms for one's age, a listener says that he fudged his age on his last big birthday by telling friends he'd turned 21 in Celsius.

Two-hander is theater jargon for a play that features just two people.

The expression on and on like Tennyson's brook describes something lengthy or seemingly interminable, like a long-winded speaker who goes on and on like Tennyson's brook. The phrase is a reference to a lovely poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson about the course of a body of water.

To lose the bubble means "to lose track" or "lose one's bearings," and refers to the bubble in an inclinometer on an airplane or ship, much like the bubble in a carpenter's level. It's described in detail in Gene Rochlin's Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization.

In Australian slang, Woop Woop is a joking term for any remote town, and if you want to denote someplace even more remote, you can describe it as 50k south of Woop Woop.

A fussbudget is someone who's "ill-tempered" or "overly critical," the -budget in this term deriving from an old word for "purse" or "pouch." Variants include fussy-budget, fuss-a-budget, and fussbucket.

The words clinomania and dysania both refer to extreme difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.

If the car you bought is a lemon, it's defective. This negative use of lemon derives from the tart taste of this fruit, which first inspired an association with a sourpuss, then a generally disappointing person, and then finally a similarly disappointing product.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
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Punch List (Rebroadcast) - 17 April 2017


Mon, Apr 17, 2017


Books for sale, books for free, and wisdom passed down through the ages. Libraries aren't just repositories for books -- they're often a great place to find gently used volumes for sale. Or you can always visit a "little free library," one of those neighborhood spot dedicated to recycling your own books, and picking up new ones for free. Plus: "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers" -- weighty proverbs from East Africa. Finally, the United States and the UK are separated by more than a common language: the way we talk about numbers is also surprisingly different, depending on which side of the pond you're on. Also: I don't know him from Adam, stargazy pie, my dogs are barking, and cheiloproclitic. Ruminate on that!

FULL DETAILS

The stunning play Our Lady of Kibeho, set in Rwanda, includes some powerful East African proverbs gathered by playwright Katori Hall, such as A flea can bother a lion, but a lion cannot bother a flea, and When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

A caller from Deer River, Minnesota, has lots of experience raising ruminants and wonders if the word ruminate, as in "to ponder or muse about something" stems from the image of such an animal chewing regurgitated cud. Indeed it does. In classical Latin, the word ruminare could mean either "to chew cud" or "to turn over in one's mind." Similarly, the English verb to browse originally referred to the action of an animal feeding on the buds and leaves of trees and bushes.

The phrase I don't know him from Adam suggests that if the person were standing next to the person in Western tradition thought to be earliest human being, the two would be indistinguishable. The phrase I don't know her from Adam can be used to refer to a woman who is similarly unrecognizable, but it's less common. Another variation: I wouldn't know him from Adam's off ox.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski invites us to a party to meet all of his dear "aunties" -- as in the "auntie" who makes sure your oily hair doesn't mess up the furniture.

Since the 1930's the term punch list has referred to a list of things to do, or a list of problems to fix. Although there are many proposed explanations for the origin of this term, none is definitive.

A caller from Tampa, Florida, talks about the eerie feeling she had when she heard an audio interview recorded with a speaker who at the time was unaware of his imminent death. She'd like a word to describe that feeling. Postalgia, maybe?

An Alabama woman says Minnesota-born husband has never heard an expression she's used all her life. The phrase is smell the patching, as in If he's not careful, he's going to smell the patching. The idea is that if you do something bad, it will catch up with you. In the early 19th century, patching was the piece of cloth used to tamp down gunpowder in firearms. If you're close enough to a battle to smell the patching, you're pretty darn close.

The Little Free Library movement offers a great way to unload some of your old books and discover some ones that someone else has left for the taking.

A listener in Hartford, Connecticut, is sure he's heard a word that means "an erotic attraction to lips." The word is cheiloproclitic, from ancient Greek words that mean "inclined toward lips." Grant offers a couple of other terms, jolie laide, French for "beautiful ugly," and cacocallia, from Greek words that mean roughly the same thing.

Those of us in the United States and Britain may be separated by a common language, but we're also separated when it comes to how we indicate numbers. A Numberphile video featuring linguist Lynne Murphy explains this in more depth.

If you think stargazy pie sounds romantic, you'd better be charmed by egg-and-potato pie with fish heads sticking out of it.

My dogs are barking means "My feet hurt" or "My feet are tired." As early as 1913, cartoonist Tad Dorgan was using the term dogs to mean "feet." If your "dogs" in this sense are "barking," it's as if they're seeking your attention.

In an earlier episode, we discussed visual signals used in deafening environments such as sawmills. One signal, developed in a textile mill, was holding up both hands, fingertips up and palms out, miming a gesture of pushing. That pushing motion translated to, of course, The boss, as in The boss is coming, so look sharp!

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
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Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.



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Sweet Dreams (Rebroadcast) - 10 April 2017


Sat, Apr 08, 2017


In deafening workplaces, like sawmills and factories, workers develop their own elaborate sign language to discuss everything from how their weekend went to when the boss is on his way. Plus, English speakers borrowed the words lieutenant and precipice from French, and made some changes along the way, but not in ways you might suspect. Finally, how do you pronounce the name of the New York concert hall you can reach with lots of practice? Is it CAR-neg-ghee Hall … or Car-NEG-ghee? Plus, no great shakes, Gomer, a limerick about leopards, foafiness, and sleep in the arms of Morpheus.

FULL DETAILS

Try this tricky puzzle: Take the words new door and rearrange their letters into one word.

How do you pronounce the name Carnegie? The Scottish industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, pronounced it with an accent on the second syllable, as his namesake the Carnegie Corporation of New York takes pains to make clear. Good luck explaining that to New Yorkers, though. They may know that the famous concert venue is named in his honor, but it's become traditional to stress the first syllable in Carnegie Hall. In the 19th century, people would have encountered his name in print first rather than hearing it by radio broadcast and incorrectly surmised it was CAR-neh-ghee, not car-NEH-ghee.

A Dallas woman says that when she rebukes the advances of the courtly old gent she's dating, he apologizes with the words I'm sorry for losing my faculties. Using the term my faculties in this sense is not all that common, but understandable if you think of one's faculties as "the ability to control impulses and behavior."

Foafiness, which derives from friend of a friend, is the condition of knowing a lot about someone even though you've never actually met, such as when you feel like you know a friend's spouse or children solely because you've read so much about them on Facebook. But is there a term for "experiential foafiness," when you feel like you've visited someplace but then realize you've only read about it or seen it in a video?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a quiz based on what editors for the Oxford English Dictionary say are the 100 Most Common Words in English.

Is it okay use the word ask as a noun, as in What's our ask going to be? Or should we substitute the word question or request? Actually, the noun ask has handy applications in the world of business and fundraising, where it has a more specific meaning. It's taken on a useful function in the same way as other nouns that started as verbs, including reveal, fail, and tell.

A Burlington, Vermont, listener says that when he was a boy, his dad used to call him a little Gomer. It's a reference to the 1960's sitcom "Gomer Pyle," which featured a bumbling but good-hearted U.S. Marine from the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. As a result, the name Gomer is now a gently derogatory term for "rube" or "hick."

Glenn Reinhardt and his 8-year-old daughter Camryn of San Antonio, Texas, co-authored a limerick that makes clever use of the words leopard, shepherd, and peppered.
 
A native French speaker wants clarification about the use of the word precipice in English.

A listener in Lashio, Myanmar, reports that a term of endearment in the local language translates as "my little liver."  

In deafening industrial workplaces, such as textile factories and sawmills, workers often develop their own elaborate system of sign language, communicating everything from how their weekend went or to straighten up because the boss is coming.

The phrase no great shakes means "no great thing" or "insignificant." The term may have arisen from the idea of shaking dice and then having a disappointing toss. If so, it would fall into a long line of words and phrases arising from gambling. Or it may derive from an old sense of the word shake meaning "swagger" or "boast."  

A listener in Montreal, Canada, asks: How do you pronounce lieutentant? The British say LEF-ten-ant, while Americans say LOO-ten-ant. In the United States, Noah Webster insisted on the latter because it hews more closely to the word's etymological roots, the lieu meaning "place" and lieutenant literally connoting a "placeholder," that is, an officer carrying out duties on behalf of a higher-up.

Why doesn't an usher ush? The word goes all the way back to Latin os, meaning "mouth," and its derivative ostium, meaning "door." An usher was originally a servant in charge of letting people in and out of a door.

A San Diego woman says her mother always tucked her into bed with the comforting wish, Sweet dreams, and rest in the arms of Morpheus. This allusion to mythology evokes a time when people were more familiar with Greek myth, and the shape-shifting god Morpheus who ruled over sleep and dreams and inspired both the word metamorphosis and the name of the sleep-inducing drug, morphine.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.



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Gone To Seed - 3 April 2017


Mon, Apr 03, 2017


Restaurant jargon, military slang, and modern Greek turns of phrase. Some restaurants now advertise that they sell "clean" sandwiches. But that doesn't mean they're condiment-free or the lettuce got an extra rinse. In the food industry, the word "clean" is taking on a whole new meaning. Plus, a Marine veteran wonders about a phrase he heard often while serving in Vietnam: "give me a Huss," meaning "give me a hand." Finally, some surprising idioms used in Greece today. For example, what does a Greek person mean if he tells you "I ate a door"?

FULL DETAILS

In English, the expression keep your eyes peeled means "pay close attention" or "be on the lookout." In Modern Greek, the equivalent is ta matia sou dekatessera, literally, "your eyes fourteen." In Greece today, if you've been rejected you might say so with a phrase that translates as "I ate a door." If you've been looking for someone for a very long time, you might say Efaga ton kosmo na se vro, the equivalent of "I ate the world to find you."
A listener in New York City asks: Why do we say yesterday but not yesterweek?

The phrase ignorance gone to seed invokes an agricultural metaphor. Picture a field that is so far gone it's no longer flowering and is now beyond the point of further cultivation.

If someone feigns ignorance, a Greek might describe him with an expression that translates as "He pretends to be a duck."

Unless you're having a bad dream about equine creatures, a nightmare doesn't have anything to do with horses. The mare in nightmare comes from an old word that means "goblin."

In Modern Greek, if you want to say something is "fantastic," "out of this world," or otherwise "terrific," you can say Den iparchei!, which literally means "It doesn't exist!"

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's challenge requires removing an initial letter from one word to form a two-word rhyme. For example, what two rhyming words are suggested by the clue "I'd like to try that ice cream, but you didn't give me enough"?

A Marine Corps veteran in Omaha, Nebraska, is puzzled by a phrase he often heard during his service in Vietnam: give me a huss, meaning "give me a hand" or "help me." One strong theory for its origin involves a type of helicopter known as the Huss, described in the book Marines and Helicopters 1962-1973, by William Fails.

Some people, particularly younger folks, are adamant that the term belligerent means "drunk." It's a misanalysis of the word, perhaps associating being intoxicated with being ready to fight. Instead, belligerent derives from the Latin word bellum, meaning "war," also found in bellicose, and the term applied to that period before a war, particularly the U.S. Civil war, antebellum.

A woman in Carmel, Indiana, wonders about the use of the verb kimble to mean a certain kind of "strutting." Kimbling is that proud, confident way of walking you might associate with Barack Obama or Denzel Washington. But its origin is unclear.

Second-acting, the once-common practice of sneaking in to see the second act of a Broadway show for free by mixing in with paying patrons outside at intermission, largely ended as theaters began tightening their security and fewer people step outside for a cigarette.

What is the plural of attorney general? Attorneys general or attorney generals?

The word clean, as in clean food, has taken on a whole new life as a buzzword describing food free of artificial ingredients, preservatives, or added color. A restaurant chain now boasts clean sandwiches, and the topic is now covered by the magazine Clean Eating.

Scobolotch is a term used in Wisconsin for the mayfly, and may derived from a Native American language. Variants include scobblotcher and skoplotch. This short-lived insect goes by many other names, including Green Bay fly and Canadian soldier.

The words flet and dray, or drey, refer to types of squirrel's nests.

Why don't we pronounce the letter b in the word subtle? The word derives ultimately from Latin subtilis, meaning "fine, delicate," and was adopted into Middle English from Old French as sotil. The b was later added back in so that the spelling reflected the word's original Latin roots, but the pronunciation continued to lack the b sound.

The mayfly, that insect whose time is up in a mere 24 hours or so, goes by many other names, including bay fly, cisco fly, drake fly, dun, eel fly, fish fly, flying clipper, green fly, July fly, June bu, June fly, and more.

Spondulix, also spelled spondulicks, is a slang term for money. Mark Twain used it in Huckleberry Finn, although it had been around for a while before that. The word may derive from the Greek word spondylos, meaning "vertebra" or "spine," suggesting the similarity between a column of those round bones and of a stack of coins.

The Spanish phrase tiene mas lana que un borrego means someone is quite wealthy. Literally, the phrase means "he has more wool than a lamb."

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
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Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
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Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.



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Hell's Half Acre - 27 March 2017


Mon, Mar 27, 2017


Hundreds of years ago, the word girl didn't necessarily mean a female child. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the term "girl" could refer to a child of either sex. Only later did its meaning become more specific. Plus, some people think that referring to a former spouse as an ex sounds harsh or disrespectful. So what DO you call someone you used to be involved with? Finally, the story behind the real McCoy. This term for something that's "genuine" has nothing to do with the famous feud. Also, hairy at the heels, Spanglish, nose out of joint, punctuating abbreviations, and gaywater.

FULL DETAILS

Listeners respond to our discussion about what to call a baby shower for the dad-to-be, suggesting Huggies and Chuggies, beer shower, beer for diapers, diaper kegger, baby boot camp, and Baby Fat Tuesday.

Why do we describe something that's genuine or authentic as the Real McCoy?

The expression Hell's Half Acre denotes a small patch of land or a place that's otherwise undesirable, and has been around for a century and a half.

A Courtland, Alabama, woman wonders about the phrase hairy at the heel. Along with hairy-heeled, hairy about the heels, and hairy about the fetlocks, this snobby term describes someone who is considered ill-bred, and derives from the fact that non-thoroughbred horses often have tufts of hair above their hooves.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a fill-in-the-blank puzzle about famous hip-hop rhymes. For example, from Run DMC, there's the verse: I'm the King of Rock / There is none higher / Sucker MC's should call me _________.

A man in Carlsbad, California, contends that the word ex for "a former partner" or "a former spouse" sounds too harsh. Is there a better term besides wasband?

Responding to our discussion about what to call a baby shower for a dad-to-be, one listener suggests the term bro bath.

A man who divides his time between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, wonders if linguistic mixtures similar to Spanglish arise at other borders. Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language by Ilan Stavans, offers a comprehensive look at this phenomenon.

A Hindi proverb that means "Unity is strength" literally translates as one and one make eleven.

Why, when writing out an abbreviated name like NATO for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, don't we use periods between the letters?

When someone's buried in a cemetery, you can visit their grave. But what do you call the place where you go to visit someone's scattered ashes? Listeners ponder that question on our Facebook group.

Hundreds of years ago, the word girl could refer to a child of either sex, and the word boy applied specifically to a servant. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is a useful resource for understanding which terms were in common use during what period.

A listener suggests a sartorial twist on our conversation about baby showers for dads-to-be.

Why, when someone's unhappy about something, do we say someone's nose is out of joint or out of socket?

A man in Devon, England, notes that where he lives, wetting the baby's head is a term for a baby shower for a soon-to-be dad, and involves taking the man out to a pub for copious amounts of beer.

A San Diego, California, says his high school history teacher used the phrase Chop chop wiki wiki meaning "Hurry up!" The first part of this phrase comes from similar-sounding Cantonese words--the source also of the chop in chopsticks--and the second half comes from a Hawaiian word that means "quick," and is also found in the name of the online reference work that can be edited quickly, Wikipedia.

Gaywater is a Southern term for whiskey, especially the illegal variety.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
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Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.



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Steamed Bun - 20 March 2017


Mon, Mar 20, 2017


This week on "A Way with Words”: The language we use to cover up our age, and covering up a secret message. Do you ever find yourself less-than-specific about your age? Listeners share some of their favorite phrases for fudging that number, like: "Oh, I'm 29, plus shipping and handling." Plus, since ancient times, people have hidden messages in clever ways. Nowadays, coded messages are sometimes concealed in pixels. Finally, uber-silly German jokes: Did you hear the one about the two skyscrapers knitting in the basement? It's silly, all right. Plus, the origin of hello, the creative class, all wool and a yard wide, get some kip, a handful of minutes, and jeep.

FULL DETAILS

On our Facebook group, listeners share a variety of ways to refer to someone who's lived a half-century or more: 50-plus, member of the 600 Month Club, 29 plus shipping and handling, the 40th anniversary of my 30th birthday, and Jack Benny-plus.

There's the living room, the dining room, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the TV room. So why don't we call the kitchen the cooking room?

The hell in hello has nothing to do with the Devil's abode. The word is related to similar shouts of greeting, such as Hallo or Halloa. Several languages have similar exclamations, such as Swedish hej, which sounds like English hey.

A listener in our Facebook group reports that sometimes he says he's not old -- he's just been young for a really long time.

A man in Del Mar, California, wonders about the expression must needs meaning "must by necessity." Is it a regionalism, pretentious, or perhaps used just for emphasis?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a tricky quiz with false answers. For example, if the plural of mouse is mice, then what's the false plural of spouse?

A listener has been baffled for years by a riddle told a German friend. It goes: What's the difference between a frog? Answer: The greener it is, the faster it swims. It's an example of an Antiwitz or "anti-joke," a popular form of German humor that has the structure of a traditional joke, but involves absurd imagery and lacks a satisfying punchline. In China, a similarly silly type of humor goes by a name that translates as "cold joke."

A popular Hindi proverb about blaming everyone but oneself translates as "One who knows no dance claims that the stage is tilted."

The term creative class has been around for a century, but it was popularized by economist and sociologist Richard Florida and his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida uses the term to refer to artists, designers, tech producers, and other knowledge workers whose products and ingenuity invigorate local economies.

The translation of one silly German Anti-witz joke begins, "Two thick feet are crossing the street…" Another starts, "Two skyscrapers are sitting in the basement knitting…" They go downhill from there.

All wool and a yard wide means "reliable and trustworthy." The phrase was part of an advertisement in the late 19th century, touting material produced by textile mills that wasn't shoddy, or made from the shredded fiber of old scraps.

In Appalachia, the term handful of minutes refers to something small, as in She's no bigger than a handful of minutes.

Steganography is the practice of concealing messages within text, digitized data, or other objects. The word derives from Greek words that mean "covered writing."

A listener in Ypsilanti, Michigan, wonders how the Army vehicle called a jeep got its name. It was associated with Eugene the Jeep, a strange creature from the 1930s comic strip, Popeye.

In a discussion our Facebook group, a woman shares her mother-in-law's favorite expression for fudging her age.

A triathlete in Traverse City, Michigan, calls to say she's going stir-crazy while recuperating from an injury. The term stir-crazy makes sense if you know that stir is an old synonym for "prison."

A witty euphemism from our Facebook group for discussing one's age: I'm plenty-nine.

Time to get kip means "time to get some sleep." Kip goes all the way back to an old Dutch word that means "brothel."

The tradition of the German Antiwitz or anti-joke includes a groaner that starts with a couple of muffins sitting in an oven. When one muffin complains about the heat, the other muffin exclaims incredulously, "Oh my god, a talking muffin!"

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
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Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
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Copyright 2017, Wayword LLC.



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Gangbusters (Rebroadcast) - 13 March 2017


Mon, Mar 13, 2017


Sensuous words and terms of endearment. Think of a beautiful word. Now, is it simply the word's sound that makes it beautiful? Or does its appeal also depend on meaning? Also, pet names for lovers around the world: You might call your beloved "honey," or "babe," or "boo." But in Swedish, your loved one is a "sweet nose," and in Persian, you can just say you hope a mouse eats them. Finally, in certain parts of the U.S., going out to see a stripper may not mean what you think it means. Plus, clutch, dank, girled up, gorilla warfare, dead ringer, spitten image, butter beans vs. lima beans, and the whole shebang.

FULL DETAILS

May a mouse eat you, or in Persian, moosh bokharadet, is a term of endearment suggesting the recipient is small and cute. Another picturesque hypocorism: French mon petit chou, "sweetheart," but literally, "my little cabbage."

To go gangbusters is to "perform well and vigorously" or "act with energy and speed," as in an economy going gangbusters. The term recalls the swift aggression of 1930's police forces decisively breaking up criminal gangs. The old-time radio show Gangbusters, known for its noisy opening sequence, complete with sirens and the rattle of tommy guns, helped popularize the term.

Sotnos, with an umlaut over that first o, is a Swedish term of endearment. Literally, it means "sweet nose."

A listener in Billings, Montana, wonders about two of her boyfriend's favorite slang terms: clutch and dank. Clutch most likely derives from the world of sports, where a clutch play requires peak performance from an athlete, giving rise to clutch meaning "great." Dank, on the other hand, is used among cannabis aficionados to describe the smell of good marijuana, and was popularized by Manny the Hippie's appearances on David Letterman's show.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski is on the hunt for four-letter words hidden inside related words. For example, find the related four letter word hidden in the last word of this sentence: A union member might find him despicable.  

When writing a business letter, what's a modern salutation that doesn't sound as stuffy as Dear Sir or Dear Madam? To Whom It May Concern, perhaps? The answer depends on the context and the intended audience.

A Boardman, Ohio, was confused as a child after reading about guerrilla warfare and wondering what those big, hairy primates could possibly be fighting about.

In mining country, a stripper is an huge piece of machinery churns up the soil in search of coal veins. This caused no end of hilarity one Christmas Day for a Terre Haute, Indiana, family when a new in-law was scandalized by the thought that all the menfolk were enthusiastically heading out to see a new stripper.

More than a century ago, the Springfield Republican newspaper in Massachusetts proposed a new word for that twitterpated time in an adolescent's life when one discovers the joys of flirtation: being all girled up. The Republican is also the publication containing the first known instance of someone suggesting the term Ms. as an honorific.

Schadenfreude, from German for "damage-joy," means "delight in the misfortune of others."

How dry is it? In the middle of a drought, you might answer that question is So dry the trees are bribing the dogs.

What makes a word beautiful? Is it merely how it sounds? Or does a word's meaning affect its aesthetic effect? Max Beerbohm had some helpful thoughts about gondola, scrofula, and other words in his essay "The Naming of Streets." Several years ago, Grant wrote a column on this topic for The New York Times.

The origin of the whole shebang, meaning "the whole thing," is somewhat mysterious. It may derive from an Irish word, shabeen, which meant "a disreputable drinking establishment," then expanded to denote other kinds of structures, including "an encampment." The phrase the whole shebang was popularized during the U.S. Civil War.
 
Two familiar terms that have inspired lots of bogus etymologies are dead ringer and spitting image. Dead ringer probably comes from horse racing, where a ringer is a horse that may look like other horses in a race but is actually from a higher class of competitors, and therefore a sure bet. The dead in this sense suggests the idea of "exact" or "without a doubt," also found in such phrases as dead certain. As for the term variously spelled spitting image or spittin' image or spit and image, Yale University linguist Larry Horn has argued convincingly that the original form is actually spitten image, likening a father-son resemblance to an exact copy spat out from the original.

If you want to reassure someone, you might say I've got your back. In Persian, however, to indicate the same thing, you'd say the equivalent of "I have your air," which is havato daram.

What's the difference between butter beans, lima beans, and wax beans? The answer depends on where you live and what dialect you speak.

Oh, those romantic Germans! Among their many terms of endearment is the one that translates as "mouse bear."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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XYZ PDQ (Rebroadcast) - 6 March 2017


Mon, Mar 06, 2017


How often do you hear the words campaign and political in the same breath? Oddly enough, 19th-century grammarians railed against using campaign to mean "an electoral contest." Martha and Grant discuss why. And, lost in translation: a daughter accidentally insults her Spanish-speaking mother with the English phrase You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Finally, just how many are a couple? Does a couple always mean just two? Or does "Hand me a couple of napkins" ever really mean "Give me a few"?

FULL DETAILS

Today's pet peeve is often tomorrow's standard usage. Nineteenth-century grammarians railed against the use of the word campaign to denote an electoral contest, arguing it was an inappropriate use of a military term. C.W. Bardeen's 1883 volume Verbal Pitfalls: A Manual of 1500 Words Commonly Misused is a trove of similarly silly and often unintentionally hilarious advice.

The slang phrase XYZ, meaning "examine your zipper," has been used since at least the 1960's as a subtle tipoff to let someone know his zipper is down. A variant, XYZ PDQ, means "examine your zipper pretty darn quick." Other surreptitious suggestions for someone with an open fly: There's a dime on the counter, Are you advertising?, and What do birds do?

A listener in Palmer, Massachusetts, wants a term for when something, such as a piece of art, evokes fondness by combining both old and new things, such as a Monet painting reimagined by a digital artist. How about a combination of the Italian words for "new" and "old," nuovovecchio? Or newstalgia, perhaps? Retrostalgia?

A bollard is a post that helps guide traffic. It probably derives from the Middle English word bole, meaning "tree trunk."

You'uns, a dialectal form of the second-person plural, generally means "you and your kin." The term is heard in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and much of the South, reflecting migration patterns of immigrants from the British Isles. It's also related to yinz, heard in western Pennsylvania to mean the same thing.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski serves up a sibilant quiz about three-word phrases that have words beginning with S separated by the word and. For example, what 1970's sitcom featured a theme song by Quincy Jones called "The Street Beater"?

Go lemony at is slang for "get angry."

Does the term a couple mean "two and only two items"? Nope. Plenty of folks use couple to mean "a small but indefinite" quantity, and to insist otherwise is pure peevishness.

A colloquial apology for telling an overly long story is Sorry I had to go around my elbow to get to my thumb. The phrase is also a handy way to indicate you took the opposite of a shortcut.

A woman whose mother is a native Spanish speaker learning English was bothered when her daughter used the phrase You can't teach an old dog new tricks, taking offense at the idea that her daughter was calling her a dog. She might instead have used A leopard can't change its spots, or As the twig is bent, so inclines the tree, and from Latin, Senex psittacus negligit ferulam, or An old parrot doesn't mind the stick.

The words plethora and drastic both have roots in ancient Greek. Both were first used in English as medical terms, plethora indicating "an excess of bodily fluid" and drastic meaning "having an effect."

In his 1869 volume Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech, self-appointed grammar maven gave specious advice against using the word love when you merely mean "like."

A San Diego, California, listener bemoans the lack of a specific term for the person who is married to one's brother or sister. The best we can do in English is brother-in-law or sister-in-law, but often that needs further clarification.

The slang expression No Tea, No Shade, meaning "No disrespect, but …" is common in the drag community, where T means "truth." The related phrase All Tea, All Shade, means "This statement is true, so I don't care if it offends you or not." At least as early as the 1920's the slang verb to shade has meant "to defeat."

Martha's fond of videos about Appalachian dialect, and in one she came across the expression, I'd just as soon be in hell with my back broke, meaning "I strongly prefer to be anywhere else."

English speakers borrowed the German term Witzelsucht (or "joke addiction") to mean "excessive punning and a compulsion to tell bad jokes." While it might sound amusing to have a word for such behavior, the word refers specifically to a brain malfunction that's actually quite serious.

In Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, Dan Lyons writes about slang he heard during his time working at a hot new startup. If someone was fired, that person was described as having graduated, and the word delight and the neologism delightion were used as terms for what the company aimed to provide to customers.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Hang a Ralph (Rebroadcast) - 27 February 2017


Mon, Feb 27, 2017


The names of professional sports teams often have surprising histories -- like the baseball team name inspired by, of all things, trolley-car accidents. Plus, some questions to debate at your next barbecue: Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? And when exactly does dusk or dawn begin? Dictionary editors wrestle with such questions all the time, and it turns out that writing a definition is a lot harder than you think. Finally, a new word for your John Hancock: When you use your finger to sign an iPad, what do you call that electronic scribble? Plus, hang a Roscoe, Peck's Bad Boy, coming down the pike, sozzling, stroppy, grammagrams, and umbers.

FULL DETAILS

Try this riddle: You throw away the outside and cook the inside, then eat the outside and throw away the inside. What is it?
 
A caller from Los Angeles, California, wonders why we say hang a Roscoe for "turn right" when giving directions. This phrase, as well as hang a Louie, meaning "turn left," go back at least as far as the 1960's. These expressions are much like the military practice of using proper names for directional phrases in order to maintain clarity. Some people substitute the word bang for  hang, as in bang a Uey (or U-ee) for "make a U-turn."

The phrase coming down the pike refers to something approaching or otherwise in the works. The original idea had to do with literally coming down a turnpike.

In the late 19th century, Wisconsin newspaperman George Wilbur Peck wrote a series of columns about a fictional boy who was the personification of mischief. The popular character inspired stage and movie adaptations, and the term Peck's Bad Boy came to refer to someone similarly incorrigible.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski tees up a trivia quiz about how sports teams got their names. For example, are the Cleveland Browns so named because one of their founders was named Paul Brown, or because of the orange-brown clay on the banks of the Cuyahoga River?

A listener in Bayfield, Wisconsin, says her grandmother used to tell her to go sozzle in the bathtub. John Russell Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms defines the verb to sozzle this way: "to loll; to lounge; to go lazily or sluttishly about the house."

A professional shoemaker in Columbiana, Ohio, wonders why the words cobbler and cobble have negative connotations, given that shoemaking is a highly skilled trade. The notion of cobbling something together in a haphazard or half-hearted way goes back to the days when a cobbler's task was more focused on mending shoes, rather than making them. But Grant quotes a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which such a tradesman articulates the nobility of his profession: I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them. As proper men as ever trod upon neat's leather have gone upon my handiwork.

The slang term stroppy is an adjective meaning "annoying" or "difficult to deal with." It might be related to the similarly unpleasant word, obstreperous.

If you simply read each letter aloud, you can see why O.U.Q.T.! U.R.A.B.U.T.! can be interpreted to mean "Oh, you cutie! You are a beauty!" A statement expressed that way with letters, numerals, or drawings is called a rebus, or, if it's solely expressed with letters and numerals, a grammagram. Great examples include the F.U.N.E.X.? ("Have you any eggs?") gag by the British comedy duo The Two Ronnies, and William Steig's book CDC?

A door divided across the middle so that the bottom half stays closed while the top half opens is known as a Dutch door, a stable door, or a half-door. Some people informally call it a Mr. Ed door, named after a TV series popular in the 1960's about a talking horse named Mr. Ed who frequently stood behind such a door.

Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? Why or why not? Is a burrito a sandwich? (A Massachusetts judge actually ruled on that question in 2006.) What about a veggie wrap? These kinds of questions about the limits and core meanings of various words are more complicated that you might think. Lexicographers try to tease out the answers when writing dictionary entries.

Some people are using the word fingature to mean that scribble you do on an electronic pad when asked to sign for a credit card payment.

A woman who grew up in Albuquerque recalls that when one of her schoolmates got in trouble, she and their peers would say ominously, Umbers! This slang term is apparently a hyperlocal version of similarly elongated exclamations like Maaaaaan! Or Burrrrrn! that youngsters use to call attention to another's faux pas.

An Indianapolis, Indiana, listener says that his mother-in-law was asked by a child where she was going, would jokingly sing that she was going to the Turkey trot trot trot, across the lot, lot, lot, feeling fine, fine, fine until Thanksgiving time. Trouble. Trouble trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble on the double. Sounds like she was singing a version of the Turkey Trot Blues.
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Charismatic Megafauna - 20 February 2017


Mon, Feb 20, 2017


Choosing language that helps resolve interpersonal conflict. Sometimes a question is really just a veiled form of criticism. Understanding the difference between "ask culture" and "guess culture" can help you know how to respond. And what words should you use with a co-worker who's continually apologizing for being late--but never changes her behavior? Finally, charismatic megafauna may look cuddly, but they're best appreciated from a distance. Plus, in like Flynn, gradoo, champing, pronouncing the word the, pilot episodes, and Bless your heart.

FULL DETAILS

Following our discussion about how to handle repeated excuses from a perpetually late co-worker, a listener sends a snarky solution from a stylist in her hair salon.

The multipurpose phrase Bless your heart is heard often in the Southern United States. Although it sounds polite and solicitous, it often has a cutting edge to it.

The phrase loose lips sink ships is a warning to be careful about what you say publicly. It stems from propaganda posters from World War II that proclaimed Loose Lips Sink Might Sink Ships, meaning that anything you say could be overheard by an enemy, with literally catastrophic results.

An ex-Marine reports that his commanding officer used to castigate his men for any stray threads hanging from their uniforms, calling those loose threads Irish pennants. That term is an ethnophaulism, or ethnic slur. Other examples of ethnopaulisms include Irish screwdriver for "hammer" and Irish funnies for "obituaries."

In the 17th century, the verb to bate and the likely related verb, to bat, were used in falconry to mean "to flap wildly."  By the 19th century, to bat was also part of the phrase to bat one's eyelashes.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle is inspired by the periodic table, and involves adding the chemical symbol for an element to one word in order to form an entirely new word. For example, if you take the hat from a baseball fan and add helium to it, it becomes very inexpensive. What's the new word?

In comic strips, a bright idea is symbolized by a light bulb over a character's head. This association between an incandescent bulb and inspiration was popularized in the early 20th century by the cartoon character Felix the Cat, but the notion of an idea being bright goes back as least as far as the writing of Jonathan Swift.

Listeners weigh in on a call about what language to use with a co-worker who continually apologizes for being late, but doesn't change their behavior.

To be in like Flynn means to be "quickly and easily successful." The phrase has long been associated with hard-living heartthrob Errol Flynn, but was around before he became famous. Some people use the phrase in like Flint to mean the same thing, a phrase probably inspired by the 1967 movie In like Flint.  

If two people are like five minutes of eleven, they're close friends. The phrase reflects the idea of the position of a clock's hands at that time.

Why is the first episode of a television series often called a pilot?

As the 19th-century British jurist Charles Darling observed: "A timid question will always receive a confident answer."

After researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego discovered a seahorse-like creature called the Ruby Sea Dragon, they described this brilliant red fish as a charismatic species. Many scientists use the word charismatic to characterize animals that humans may find particularly appealing, which makes such animals useful for raising public awareness of biological diversity and environmental concerns. Such fauna--or in the case of pandas and elephants, megafauna--are sometimes called glamour animals or hero species. A hero shot in advertising, by the way, is a photo of a product or service that sums up its appeal to potential customers.

A psychotherapist in Burlington, Vermont, observes that couples in counseling together ask each other questions that are actually veiled criticisms. Such indirect communication was the topic of a spirited conversation on Metafilter.  Much has been written about direct vs. indirect communication styles, or as it's sometimes called, "ask culture" vs. "guess culture."

A Palm Springs, California, listener was taught that when the word the is followed by a vowel, it should be pronounced with a short e, and otherwise with a schwa sound. However, there's no basis for such a rule.

The Churches Conservation Trust helps maintain and repurpose more than 300 churches in Britain that are no longer used for worship. To raise money for the buildings' upkeep, the trust now offers visitors the chance to have a sleepover in the sanctuary, which they've dubbed champing, a portmanteau that combines the words church and camping. Their promotional materials also offer a slap-up breakfast, slap-up being a Britishism that means "first-rate."

A Dallas, Texas, listener wonders if his family made up the term gradoo, meaning "grime" or "schmutz." It's definitely more widespread than that, and may derive from a French term.

The noun bangs, meaning "hair cut straight across the forehead," may derive from the idea of the word bang meaning "abruptly," as in a bangtail horse whose tail is trimmed straight across. The verb curtail, meaning to "cut off," was first used to mean "dock a horse's tail," and then later applied more generally to mean "shorten" or "diminish."

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Knuckle Down - 13 February 2017


Mon, Feb 13, 2017


A wingnut is a handy, stabilizing piece of hardware. So why is it a pejorative term for those of a certain political persuasion? Also, is there something wrong with the phrase "committed suicide"? Some say that the word "commit" is a painful reminder that, legally, suicide was once considered a criminal act. They've proposed a different term. Finally, a word game inspired by that  alliteratively athletic season, March Madness. Plus, rabble rouser vs. rebel rouser, BOLO, feeling punk, free reign, sneaky pete, and a cheesy pun.

FULL DETAILS

Did you hear about the explosion in the French cheese factory? (If you don't like puns, brace yourself.)

Which is it: rabble rouser or rebel rouser? It's rabble rouser, rabble meaning "a confused collection of things" or "a motley crowd." Rubble rouser is another variant listed in The Eggcorn Database.

A listener in Carmel, New York, remembers his father's phrase knuckle down screw boney tight, a challenge called out to someone particularly adept at playing marbles. The game of marbles, once wildly popular in the United States, is a rich source of slang, including the phrase playing for keeps.

An Omaha, Nebraska man wonders about starting a sentence with the word anymore, meaning "nowadays." Linguists refer to this usage as positive anymore, which is common in much of the Midwest, and stems from Scots-Irish syntax.

BOLO is an acronym for Be On the Lookout. An all-points bulletin may also be described as simply a BOL.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz inspired by March Madness, taking us through the year with the name of a month followed by an adjective with the suffix -ness attached to form an alliterative noun phrase. For example, what do you call a festival in which everyone wears a hat a rakish angle, and the attendees decide which is the most lively and cheerful?

A listener in Council Bluffs, Iowa, says his grandmother, born in 1899, used to say I'm feeling punk, meaning "I'm feeling ill." The term derives from an older sense of punk meaning "rotted wood."

Linguistic freezes, also known as binomials or irreversible pairs, are words that tend to appear in a certain order, such as now and then, black and white, or spaghetti and meatballs.

To give free rein, meaning "to allow more leeway," derives from the idea of loosening one's grip on the reins of a horse. Some people mistakenly understand the term as free reign.

The Mighty is a website with resources for those facing disability, disease, and mental illness. In an essay there, Kyle Freeman, who lost her brother to suicide, argues that the term commit suicide is a source of unnecessary pain and stigma for the survivors. The term commit, she says, is a relic of the days when suicide was legally regarded as a criminal act, rather than a last resort amid terrible pain. She prefers the term dying by suicide. Cultural historian Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, has written that the phrase dying by suicide is preferable, but for a different reason: it's more blunt, and "doesn't let death hide behind other words."

A woman in Hudson, New York, says her boyfriend, who grew up on Long Island, uses the expression call out sick, meaning "to phone an employer to say you're not coming to work because you're ill." But she uses the phrase call in sick to mean the very same thing. To call out sick is much more common in the New York City area than other parts of the United States.

A wingnut is a handy, stabilizing piece of hardware. So how did it come to be a pejorative term for those of a particular political persuasion?

In English, we sometimes liken feeling "out of place" to being a fish out of water. The corresponding phrase in Spanish is to say you feel como un pulpo en el garaje, or like an octopus in a garage.
A man in Red Lodge, Montana, says he and his wife sometimes accuse each other of being a sneaky pete. It's an affectionate expression they use if, say, one of them played a practical joke on the other. The origin of this term uncertain, although it may have to do with the fact that in the 1940's sneaky pete was a term for cheap, rotgut alcohol that one hides from the authorities.

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Lie Like A Rug - 5 February 2017


Mon, Feb 06, 2017


The words we choose can change attitudes--and change lives. A swing-dance instructor has switched to gender-neutral language when teaching couples. He insists that using words like "leader" and "follower" actually works better than using gendered terms. But not everyone agrees. Plus, a pithy observation about how stray comments can seem meaningless at the time, but can lodge in other people like seeds and start growing. Plus, slang you might hear in Albuquerque, sufficiently suffonsified, make ends meet, cut a chogie, and minders, finders, and grinders.

FULL DETAILS


Sometimes English grammar means that prepositions and adverbs pile up in funny ways. Take, for example, "It's really coming down up here" or "Turn left right here."

A listener in Shreveport, Louisiana, reports that after a fine meal, her father used to announce, "I have dined sufficiently, and I have been well surossfied." It's a joking exaggeration of the word satisfied. In a 1980 article in American Speech, former editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English Frederic G. Cassidy reported lots of variations, including suffancifed, suffencified, suffoncified, suffuncified, and ferancified. Another version of the phrase goes
"My sufficiency is fully surancified; any more would be obnoxious to my fastidious taste."

A 1957 story by James Thurber includes a sentence with an oddly stranded preposition.

Why do some place names include the word The, as in The Hague or the Bronx?

The word traces denotes the long, thin leather straps that secure a horse to a wagon. The expression to kick over the traces, meaning "to become unruly," refers to the action of a horse literally kicking over those straps and getting all tangled up, and can be used metaphorically to describe a person who rebels against authority or tradition.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's game involves misreading memos that start with Re: For example, if Don Draper of Sterling Cooper Draper Price leaves a message asking you to "comprehend written matter", what's the subject of that message?

A San Antonio, Texas, listener says some of her friends use the word toasted to mean "drunk" and some use it to mean "high on marijuana." Which is it?

Attorneys use the terms minders, grinders, and finders to refer to different roles in a law firm. Finders get the business, grinders do the business, and minders keep the business.

To cut a chogi, also spelled choagy or chogie, is a slang term meaning "Let's get out of here." It probably stems from Korean words meaning "go there," and was picked up by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.

The medical term sialogogic, which means "producing saliva," comes from Greek words meaning "to bring forth saliva."

A San Diego, California, man says that when he got into trouble as a boy, his mother would say, "You lie like a rug and you hang like a cheap curtain."

If you go to a party and the host neglects to put out the food that guests brought, or offers only a small portion of it, they're what you might call a belly robber.

The Humans of New York series of portraits and quotations includes one subject's wise observation about how a single offhand remark can change a life.

A swing-dance instructor in Burlington, Vermont, says gender-neutral language has been well-received in his own dance classes. Instead of the words man and woman, he now uses leader and follower. He reports this not only helps clarify his instructions but makes everyone feel welcome. Swing dancer Cari Westbrook has detailed discussions about the pros and cons of such gender-neutral language, as well as the word ambidanectrous, on her blog The Lindy Affair.

To make ends meet means to make money last through the end of a calendar period.

Poet Adrienne Rich wrote powerfully of the "psychic disequilibrium" that occurs when people don't see their own identities reflected in the language of others, "as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing."

Burqueno slang, spoken by residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico, includes such expressions as umbers, said ominously when someone's caught doing something wrong, as well as get down, meaning "to get out of a vehicle" and put gas for "fill a vehicle's gas tank." Then there's the Burqueno way to get off the phone: bueno bye!
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

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Pig Latin - 29 January 2017


Mon, Jan 30, 2017


This week on "A Way with Words": Grant and Martha discuss the L-word--or two L-words, actually: liberal and libertarian. They reflect different political philosophies, so why do they look so similar? Also, is the term expat racist? A journalist argues that the word expat carries a value judgment, suggesting that Westerners who move to another country are admirable and adventurous, while the term immigrant implies that someone moved out of necessity or may even be a burden to their adopted country. Finally, what do guys call a baby shower thrown for the father-to-be? A dad-chelor party? Plus, glottalization, film at 11, grab a root and growl, and Pig Latin.

FULL DETAILS

In a futile situation, English speakers might say that we're spinning our wheels. The French have a phrase for the same situation that translates as to pedal in sauerkraut. The Illustrated Book of Sayings collects similarly colorful idioms in other languages. There's a Turkish expression that literally translates as Grapes darken by looking at each other, and means that we're influenced by the company we keep. In Latvian, there's an expression that means  "to prevariate," but literally it translates as "to blow little ducks."

An Austin, Texas, listener says he and his buddies are throwing a baby shower for a dad-to-be, but they're wondering what to call a baby shower thrown for the father. A man shower? A dadchelor party?

We go back like carseats is a slang expression that means "We've been friends for a long time."

The political terms liberal and libertarian may look similar, but they have very different meanings. Both stem from Latin liber, "free," but the word liberal entered English hundreds of years before libertarian.

Half-filled pots splash more is the literal translation a Hindi expression suggesting that those who bluster the most, least deserve to. Another Hindi idiom translates literally as Who saw a peacock dance in the woods? In other words, even something worthy requires publicity if it's going to be acknowledged.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle of Container Clues, in which one word is inserted whole into another to create a new word. For example, if the definition is "kind of potatoes," and the clue is "She is in mad," what kind of potatoes are we talking about?

A Carmel, Indiana, teacher is puzzled to hear younger colleagues pronounce the words kitten and mitten as KIT-un and MIT-un, with a noticeable break between the syllables. Linguist David Eddington of Brigham Young University reports that this phenomenon, called glottalization, is a growing feature of American dialect, mainly among young women in their 20's and 30's, particularly in the western United States.  

A New York City caller wonders why we refer to clothing as duds. The term dates back to the 1300's, when the word dudde referred to a cloak or mantle of coarse cloth. Over time, it came to refer to shabby clothing, and eventually acquired a more neutral meaning of simply "clothes." The earlier sense of "ragged" or "inferior" may also be reflected in the term dud, denoting something that fails to function.

For English speakers of a certain age, Film at 11 is a slang phrase means "You'll hear the details later." It's a reference to the days before 24-hour cable news, when newscasters would read headlines during the day promoting the 11 p.m. broadcast, when viewers would get the whole story, including video.

The exhortation Grab a root and growl is a way of telling someone to buck up and do what must be done. The sense of grabbing and growling here suggests the kind of tenacity you might see in a terrier sinking his teeth into something and refusing to let go. This phrase is at least 100 years old. A much more rare variation is grab, root, and growl. Both expressions are reminiscent of a similar exhortation, root, hog, or die.

Is the term expat racist? Journalist Laura Secorun argues that the word expat implies a value judgment, suggesting that Westerners who move to another country are adventurous, while the term immigrant suggests someone who likely moved out of necessity or may be a burden to society in their adopted country.

In much of the United States, the phrase I'll be there directly means "I'm on my way right now." But particularly in parts of the South, I'll be there directly simply means "I'll be there after a while." As a Marquette, Michigan, listener points out, this discrepancy can cause lots of confusion!

Why do so many people begin their sentences with the word So? In linguistics, this is called sentence-initial so. The word So at the start a sentence can serve a variety of functions.

Ix-nay on the ocolate-chay in the upboard-cay is how you'd say Nix on the chocolate in the cupboard in Pig Latin. English speakers have a long history of inserting syllables or rearranging syllables in a word to keep outsiders from understanding. The pig in Pig Latin may just refer to the idea of pig as an inferior, unclean animal.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett and produced by Stefanie Levine.

--

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You Bet Your Boots (Rebroadcast) - 23 January 2016


Mon, Jan 23, 2017


You may have heard the advice that to build your vocabulary you should read, read, and then read some more--and make sure to include a wide variety of publications. But what if you just don't have that kind of time? Martha and Grant show how to learn new words by making the most of the time you do have. Also, when new words are added to a dictionary, do others get removed to make room? Plus, words of encouragement, words of exasperation, and a polite Japanese way to say goodbye when a co-worker leaves at the end of the day. Also, you bet your boots, the worm has turned, raise hell and put a chunk under it, bread and butter, on tomorrow, a love letter to libraries and an apology to marmots.


FULL DETAILS

After inadvertently maligning marmots in an earlier discussion of the term whistle pig, Martha makes a formal apology to any marmots that might be listening.

Uff-da! is an exclamation of disgust or annoyance. In Norwegian, it means roughly the same as  Yiddish Oy vey!, and is now common in areas of the U.S. settled by Norwegians, particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The worm has turned suggests a reversal of fortune, particularly the kind of situation in which a meek person begins behaving more confidently or starts defending himself. In other words, even the lowliest of creatures will still strike back if sufficiently provoked, an idea Shakespeare used in Henry VI, Part 3, where Lord Clifford observes, "The smallest worm will turn being trodden on, and doves will peck in safeguard of their brood."

Raise hell and put a chunk under it is simply an intensified version of the phrase raise hell, meaning "to cause trouble" or "create a noisy disturbance."

The phrases You bet your boots! and You bet your britches! mean "without a doubt" and most likely originate from gambling culture, where you wouldn't want to bet your boots or trousers without being confident that you'd win.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski takes us on a road trip, which means another round of the License Plate Game!

A Chicago-area listener wonders: When dictionaries go from print to online, are any words removed? What's the best print dictionary to replace the old one on her dictionary stand? For more about dictionaries and their history, Grant recommends the Cordell Collection of Dictionaries at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana.

When two people are walking side-by-side holding hands but briefly separate to go around an obstacle on opposite sites, they might say bread and butter. This phrase apparently stems from an old superstition that if the two people want to remain inseparable as bread and butter, they should invoke that kind of togetherness. There are several variations of this practice, including the worry that if they fail to utter the phrase, they'll soon quarrel. Another version appears early in an episode of the old TV series The Twilight Zone, featuring a very young William Shatner.  

John Webster's 1623 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi includes the memorable lines
Glories, like glowworms, afar off shine bright, / But looked to near have neither heat nor light. Much later, Stephen Crane expressed a similar idea in his poem A Man Saw a Ball of Gold in the Sky.

A woman in Monticello, Florida, is bothered by the phrase on tomorrow, and feels that the word on is redundant. However, this construction is a dialect feature, not a grammatical mistake. It has roots in the United Kingdom and probably derives from the phrase on the morrow.

What phrases do you use to encourage others to pick themselves up and dust themselves off? move on? What words do you say to acknowledge someone's bad luck and encourage them to move on? In a discussion on our Facebook group, listeners offer lots of suggestions, including tough beans, tough darts, suck it up, tough nougies, and you knew it was a snake when you picked it up.

A listener in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, requests advice about expanding her vocabulary as a writer, but admits she spends only about ten minutes a day reading. The hosts offer several suggestions: Make sure to stop and look up unfamiliar words; listen to podcasts, which will also introduce you to new words; check the etymology, which is sometimes a helpful memory aid; build vocabulary practice into your routine with a word-a-day calendar or a subscription to Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day newsletter.

A teacher in Oakley, Vermont, noted a curious construction among his students while teaching in Maine. They would say things like We're all going to the party, and so isn't he orI like to play basketball, and so doesn't he.  Primarily heard in eastern New England, this locution has a kind of internal logic, explained in more detail at one of our favorite resources, The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project.

A Jackson, Mississippi, woman who used to work in Japan says that each day as she left the office, her colleagues would say Otsukaresama desu, which means something along the lines of "Thank you for your hard work." Although its literal translation suggests that the hearer must be exhausted, it's simply understood as a polite, set phrase with no exact equivalent in English.

Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara Tuchman has observed that her single most formative educational experience was  exploring Harvard's Widener Library. She captured the feelings of many library lovers when she added that her own daughter couldn't enter that building "without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle."

To go at something bald-headed means "to rush at something head-on." The same idea informs the phrase to I'm going to pinch you bald-headed, which an exasperated parent might say to a misbehaving child. The more common version is snatch you bald-headed, a version of which Mark Twain used in his Letters from Hawaii.  
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Pink Slip (Rebroadcast) - 16 January 2017


Mon, Jan 16, 2017


This week on "A Way with Words": The language of political speech. Politicians have to repeat themselves so often that they naturally develop a repertoire of stock phrases to fall back on. But is there any special meaning to subtler locutions, such as beginning a sentence with the words "Now, look…"? Also, a peculiar twist in Southern speech may leave outsiders scratching their heads: In parts of the South "I wouldn't care to" actually means "I would indeed like to." Finally, how the word "nerd" went from a dismissive term to a badge of honor. Also, dog in the manger, crumb crushers, hairy panic, pink slips, make a branch, and horning hour.

FULL DETAILS

A listener in Weathersfield, Vermont, remembers going on car trips as a young child and wondering why, toward the end of the day, her parents would be on the lookout for motels with bacon seed.

Someone who is likened to a dog in the manger is acting spitefully, claiming something they don't even need or want in order to prevent others from having it. The story that inspired this phrase goes all the way back to ancient Greece.

A Denton, Texas, caller wonders: Are politicians increasingly starting sentences with the phrase Now, look . . . ?

A listener in Ellsworth, Michigan, shares a favorite simile from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.

Make a branch is a euphemism that means "to urinate," the word branch being a dialectal term for "a small stream."

Quiz Guy John Chaneski puts on his toque and serves up a quiz about kitchen spices.

A San Antonio, Texas, listener is puzzled about a story in The Guardian about Mavis Staples speculating about her romance with Bob Dylan: "If we’d had some little plum-crushers, how our lives would be. The kids would be singing now, and Bobby and I would be holding each other up." Plum-crushers? Chances are, though, that the reporter misheard a different slang term common in the African-American community.

Nerd used to be a term of derision, connoting someone who was socially awkward and obsessed with a narrow field of interest. Now it's used more admiringly for anyone who has a passion for a particular topic. Linguists call that type of softening amelioration.

A Toronto, Canada, caller wonders how a notice that an employee is being fired ever came to be known as a pink slip.

Martha reads Jessica Goodfellow's poem about the sound of water, "Chance of Precipitation," which first appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal.

A man who moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, was puzzled when he offered one of his new neighbors a refill on her beverage. She said I wouldn't care to have any, which he understood to be a refusal. What she meant was that she did want another glass. Turns out in that part of the country I wouldn't care to can mean I would like to, the key word being care, as in "mind" or "be bothered."

If someone's really intelligent, they might be described with the simile as smart as a bee sting.

We're off like a dirty shirt indicates the speaker is "leaving right away" or "commencing immediately." Similar phrases include off like a prom dress and off like a bride's nightie. All of them suggest haste, urgency, and speed.

Hairy panic is a weed that's wreaking havoc in a small Australian town. The panic in its name has nothing to do with extreme anxiety or overpowering fear. Hairy panic, also known as panic grass, in the scientific genus Panicum, which comprises certain cereal-producing grasses, and derives from Latin panus, or "ear of millet."

A woman in Bozeman, Montana, wonders if any other families use the term horning hour as synonym for happy hour. The term's a bit of a mystery, although it may have something to do with horning as in a shivaree, charivari, or other noisy celebration in the Old West.

One way of saying someone's a tightwad or cheapskate is to say he has fishhooks in his pocket, meaning he's so reluctant to reach into his pocket for his wallet, it's as if he'd suffer bodily injury if he did. In Australia, a similar idea is expressed with the phrases he has scorpions in his pocket or he has mousetraps in his pocket. In Argentina, what's lurking in a penny-pincher's pocket is a crocodile.
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Criss-Cross Applesauce (Rebroadcast) - 9 January 2016


Mon, Jan 09, 2017


How do languages change and grow? Does every language acquire new words in the same way? Martha and Grant focus on how that process happens in English and Spanish. Plus, the stories behind the Spanish word "gringo" and the old instruction to elementary school students to sit "Indian Style." Finally, the English equivalents of German sayings provide clever ways to think about naps, procrastination, lemons, and more. Also: catawampus, raunchy, awful vs. awesome, Man Friday, and no-see-ums.

FULL DETAILS

If you're looking forlorn and at a loss, a German speaker might describe you with a phrase that translates as "ordered but not picked up." It's as if you're a forgotten pizza sitting on a restaurant counter.

Sitting on the floor Indian style, with one's legs crossed, is a reference to Native Americans' habit of sitting that way, a practice recorded early in this country's history in the journals of French traders. Increasingly, though, schools across the United States are replacing this expression with the term criss-cross applesauce. In the United Kingdom, however, this way of sitting is more commonly known as Turkish style or tailor style.

A nine-year-old from Yuma, Arizona, wants to know the origin of catawampus. So do etymologists. Catawampus means "askew," "awry," or "crooked." We do know the word has been around for more than a century, and is spelled many different ways, such as cattywampus and caddywampus. It may derive from the Scots word wampish, meaning to "wriggle," "twist," or "swerve."


How sour is it? If you speak German, you might answer with a phrase that translates as "That's so sour it will pull the holes in your socks together."

A sixth-grade teacher in San Antonio, Texas, is skeptical about a story that the gringo derives from a song lyric. He's right. The most likely source of this word is the Spanish word for "Greek," griego, a term applied to foreigners much the same way that English speakers might say that an unintelligible language is Greek to me. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, imitated the sound of foreigners with the word barbaroi, the source of our own word barbarian.

The board game Clue inspired this week's puzzle from our Quiz Guy John Chaneski. It also inspired him to create an online petition to give Mrs. White a doctor's degree.

What's the meaning of the word raunchy? A woman in Indianapolis, Indiana, thinks it means something naughty or ribald, but to her husband's family, the word can mean "icky" or otherwise "unpleasant." She learned this when one of them mentioned that her husband's grandfather was feeling raunchy. What they mean was that he had a bad cold. The word raunchy has undergone a transformation over the years, from merely "unkempt" or "sloppy" to "coarse" and "vulgar."

A German idiom for "I'm going to take a nap" translates as "I have to take a look at myself from the inside."

A native of Colombia wants to know: Do different languages add new words in similar ways? He believes that Spanish, for example, is far less open to innovation than English.

Awesome and awful may have the same root, but they've evolved opposite meanings. Awful goes back more than a thousand years, originally meaning "full of awe" and later, "causing dread." Awesome showed up later and fulfills a different semantic role, meaning "fantastic" or "wonderful."

More listeners weigh in on our earlier discussion about the word gypsy, and whether it's to be avoided.

A listener in Norwich, Connecticut, is going through a trove of love letters her parents sent each other during World War II. In one of them, her father repeatedly used the word hideous in an ironic way to mean "wonderful." Is that part of the slang of the time?

An astute German phrase about procrastination translates as "In the evening, lazy people get busy."

A young woman is puzzled when her boyfriend's father says he was looking for someone who needs a Good Boy Friday. It's most likely a reference to Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. The title character spends 30 years on a remote tropical island, and eventually saves the life of an islander who becomes his helper. Crusoe decides to call him Friday, since that's the day of the week when they first encountered each other. Over time, English speakers began using the term Man Friday to mean a manservant or valet, and later the term Girl Friday came to mean an office assistant or secretary.   

The term no-see-ums refers to those pesky gnats that come out in the heat and humidity and are so tiny they're almost invisible. The term goes back at least as far as the 1830's, and is heard particularly in the Northeastern United States.
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Flee Fly Flo - 2016 December 31


Mon, Jan 02, 2017


SUMMARY

Wrapping up 2016 with words from the past year and some newsy limericks. Bigly and Brexit were on lots of lips this year, as well as an increasingly popular Danish word that means "cozy." Also, Quiz Guy John Chaneski sums up the year in newsy limericks about movies, science, and the Nobel Prize. Finally, an old term takes on new currency: To "gaslight" someone means to make them doubt their own perceptions. This term for malevolent manipulation was by inspired 1944 film about a psychologically abusive husband. Also, Flee Fly Flo, Latinx, woke, alte kacker, boodler, and to be honest with you.

FULL DETAILS

Words of the Year for 2016 include bigly, a mishearing of big-league; hygge, a Danish word that has to do with coziness; and Brexit, a portmanteau that denotes the exit of Britain from the European Union.

Flee Fly Flo is a camp song, and like other songs passed along orally, it has lots of variations, and often includes rhythmic hand-clapping. In her book Camp Songs, Folk Songs, Patricia Averill suggests the roots of this camp favorite may be in scat singing.

The term Latinx, pronounced Lah-TEEN-ex, gained traction in 2016 as a gender-neutral, non-binary alternative to Latino and Latina.

What does a person really mean when she starts a statement with To be honest with you? It's important not to take such expressions too literally.

Unfortunately, one Word of the Year candidate for 2016 is Zika, the name of the mosquito-borne virus linked to devastating birth defects.

What's an end-of-the-year episode without Quiz Guy John Chaneski's limericks about words in the news?

A listener in Tampa, Florida, was discussing the 2016 presidential election when the term gaslighted came up. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which victims are manipulated into doubting their own perceptions. The term was popularized by the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Berman, in which a creepy husband makes his wife doubt what she's seeing with her own eyes, including the dimming and brightening of gas-powered lamps in their home.

A caller who grew up in rural Pennsylvania remembers being asked as a child Are you being have? instead of Are you behaving? Being have, with a long a sound, results from what linguists call reanalysis. It occurs when someone mistakenly applies the pattern of such expressions as be still and be careful to the word behave.

The slang term woke, as in being woke or stay woke, arose among African-Americans to refer to being aware of social injustice or racial tension.

Although in English we have the terms orphan, widow, and widower, our language lacks a single word that means "bereaved parent." A few other languages have a word for this, including Hebrew sh'khol and Sanskrit vilomah.

Listeners respond to our earlier conversation about ending a telephone call with 'Mmm-bye.

A caller in Fort Laramie, Wyoming, refers to a roadside ditch as a borrow pit, as if the dirt dug from it was "borrowed" to form the raised surface of the road. The more common term is barrow pit, deriving from barrow, meaning "mound."

A San Diego, California, listener recalls that when asked "How's it going?" his father would often respond Same old six and eight. It may be a variation of the British expression same old seven and six, meaning "seven shillings and sixpence," a once-common total for the cost of some types of government-issued licenses.

Holiday is an old term for a spot missed when painting or wiping a surface. It's mentioned in Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

Responding to our conversation about concluding a phone call with 'Mmm-bye, a listener offers an example of a funny telephone greeting: 'Nyello!

A Tallahassee, Florida, listener heard an interview in which actor William H. Macy referred to old cockers, apparetly meaning "old fellows." Although one meaning of cocker is "pal," Macy was probably alluding to the Yiddish alte kacker, or alter kacker, meaning "old man." It's sometimes abbreviated AK, and literally translates as "old person who defecates."

A boodler is someone involved in political graft or corruption. The word likely derives from Dutch boedel, meaning "property."

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett and produced by Stefanie Levine.

 



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We've come a long way!


Fri, Dec 30, 2016


 In 2007, the public media organization that created A Way with Words had a problem.

They loved our show but a deep recession meant the station couldn't afford to keep producing it.

So they canceled it.

That could have been the end of A Way with Words.

 But Grant and I still believed so much in the educational mission that, along with our producer Stefanie, we formed a nonprofit to continue the radio show and podcast and to distribute them free of charge.

Call us idealistic, but you showed us you wanted to learn about language and connect with fellow word-lovers.

You assured us you were hungry for thoughtful conversations about word histories, grammar, and slang.

You wanted a place to share your linguistic heirlooms and feed your intellectual curiosity.

No, starting a nonprofit while producing a radio show full-time wasn't easy. Not at all. 

But you know what? Through sacrifice and hard work, and your help, our little nonprofit has produced the show for nearly 10 years. Independently, we’ve produced 248 new episodes.

It's a success story that's largely due to the generosity of listenerslike you. 

And now we can't wait to get started on our next 248 episodes!

That's where you can help. Make a gift today to ensure that we can keep bringing you even more new episodes throughout the coming year. 

 With gratitude,

Martha Barnette & Grant Barrett,

co-hosts of A Way with Words

 



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Whistle Pig (Rebroadcast) - 26 December 2016


Mon, Dec 26, 2016


The stories behind slang, political and otherwise. The dated term "jingoism" denotes a kind of belligerent nationalism. But the word's roots lie in an old English drinking-house song that was popular during wartime. Speaking of fightin' words, the expression "out the side of your neck" came up in a feud between Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa--and let's just say the phrase is hardly complimentary.  Finally, a German publishing company has declared that the top slang term among that country's youth is a name for someone who's completely absorbed in his cell phone. That word is...Smombie! And if you're guessing that Smombie comes from "zombie," you're right. Plus, thaw vs. unthaw, dinner vs. supper, groundhog vs. whistle pig, riddles galore, speed bumps and sleeping policemen, pirooting around, and kick into touch.

FULL DETAILS

Riddle: This two-syllable word has five letters. If you remove letters from it one by one, its pronunciation is still the same.

A husband and wife have a heated dispute. The topic? Whether thaw and unthaw mean the same thing.

What English speakers call speed bumps or sleeping policemen go by different names in various parts of the Spanish-speaking world. In Argentina, traffic is slowed by lomos de burro, or "burro's backs." In Puerto Rico that bump in the road is a muerto, or "dead person." In Mexico, those things are called topes, a word that's probably onomatopoetic.

A St. Petersburg, Florida, listener says when she used to ask her mother what was for dinner, her mom's answer was often Root little pig or die, meaning "You'll have to fend for yourself." An older version, root hog or die, goes all the way back to the memoirs of Davy Crockett, published in 1834. It refers to a time when hogs weren't fenced in and had to find most of their own food.

The German publisher Langenscheidt declared Smombie as the Youth Word of the Year for 2015. A portmanteau of the German borrowings Smartphone and Zombie, Smombie denotes someone so absorbed in their small, glowing screen that they're oblivious to the rest of the world. Runner-up words included merkeln, "to do nothing" or "to decide nothing"--a reference to Chancellor Angela Merkel's deliberate decision-making style--and Maulpesto, or "halitosis"-- literally, "mouth pesto."

Puzzle Person John Chaneski proffers problems pertaining to the letter P. What alliterative term, for example, also means "wet blanket"?

A San Antonio, Texas, caller wonders: What's a good word for a shortcut that ends up taking much longer than the recommended route? You might call the opposite of a shortcut a longcut, or perhaps even a longpaste. But there's also the joking faux-Latinate term circumbendibus, first used in 17th-century England to mean "a roundabout process."

A listener from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, sent us this riddle: I begin at the end. I am constant but never the same. I am frequently captured but never possessed. What am I?

Jingoism, or "extreme nationalism," derives from a drinking-hall song popular in the 1870's, with the belligerent refrain: "We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do / We've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too / We've fought the Bear before and while we're Britons true / The Russians shall not have Constantinople." The term jingo came to denote "fervent patriot espousing an aggressive foreign policy."

In rugby and soccer to kick into touch means to "kick a ball out of play." The phrase by extension can mean to "take some kind of action so that a decision is postponed" or otherwise get rid of a problem.

The Twitter feud between Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa has a listener wondering about the phrase talk out the side of your neck, meaning to "talk trash about someone." It's simply a variation of talking out of the side of one's mouth.

When they happen to say the same word at the very same time, many children play a version of the Jinx! game that ends with the declaration, You owe me a Coke! Martha shares an old version from the Ozarks that ends with a different line: What goes up the chimney? Smoke!

Many listeners responded to our conversation about the use of the term auntie to refer to an older woman who is not a blood relative. It turns out that throughout much of Africa, Asia, as well as among Native Americans, the word auntie, or its equivalent in another language, is commonly used as a term of respect for an older woman who is close to one's family but not related by blood.

A Las Vegas, Nevada, listener says her South Dakota-born mother always refers to supper as the last meal of the day and dinner as the largest meal of the day. It's caused some confusion in the family. Linguist Bert Vaux has produced dialect maps of the United States showing that in fact quite a bit of variation in the meaning of these terms depending on which part of the country you're from.

How do you make the number one disappear? (You can do it if you add a letter.)

Whistle pig, woodchuck, and groundhog are all terms for a type of large squirrel, or marmot, found in the United States. The name whistle pig, common in Appalachia, is a jocular reference to the sound they make.

On our Facebook group, a listener posted a photo of a doubletake-worthy sign in her local grocery, which reads We Now Offer Boxes to Bag Your Groceries.

Pirooting around can means "whirling around," as well as "prowling" or "nosing around." This expression is most commonly heard in the American South and Southwest. Piroot is most likely a variant of pirouette and is probably influenced by root, as in root around. Similarly, rootle is a dialectal term that means to "root around" or "poke about."

What do you call that force that keeps you lounging on the couch rather than get up the energy to go outdoors? A listener calls it house gravity.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Copacetic (Rebroadcast) - 19 December 2016


Mon, Dec 19, 2016


Brand names, children's games, and the etiquette of phone conversations. Those clever plastic PEZ dispensers come in all shapes and sizes -- but where did the word PEZ come from? The popular candy's name is the product of wordplay involving the German word for "peppermint." Also, the story behind that sing-songy playground taunt: "Neener, neener, NEEEEEEEEEEner!" Listen closely, and you'll hear the same melody as other familiar children's songs. Finally, the process of ending a phone conversation is much more complex than you might think. Linguists call this verbal choreography "leave-taking." It's less about the literal meaning of the words and more about finding a way to agree it's time to hang up. Also, Hold 'er Newt, copacetic, drupelet, pluggers, pantywaist, this little piggy, and the word with the bark on it.

FULL DETAILS

When an Austrian candy maker needed a name for his new line of mints, he took the first, middle, and last letters of the German word Pfefferminz, or "peppermint, "to form the brand name PEZ. He later marketed the candies as an alternative for smokers, and packaged them plastic dispensers in the shape of cigarette lighters. The candy proved so popular that now PEZ dispensers come in all shapes and sizes.

A Georgia caller says when her grandfather had to make a sudden stop while driving, he'd yell Hold 'er Newt, she smells alfalfa! This phrase, and variations like Hold 'er Newt, she's a-headin' for the pea patch, and Hold 'er Newt, she's headin' for the barn, alludes to controlling a horse that's starting to bolt for a favorite destination. Occasionally, the name is spelled Knute instead of Newt. The name Newt has long been a synonym for "dolt" or "bumpkin."

Lord Byron continues to make readers think with these words about language: But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which make thousands, perhaps millions, think.

Why does the playground taunt Neener, neener, neener have that familiar singsongy melody?

Jeffrey Salzber, a theater lighting designer and college instructor from Essex Junction, Vermont, says that when explaining to students the need to be prepared for any and all possibilities, he invokes Salzberg's Theory of Pizza: It is better to have pizza you don't want, than to want pizza you don't have.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's latest puzzle involves changing a movie plot by adding a single letter to the original title. For example, the movie in which Melissa McCarthy plays a deskbound CIA analyst becomes a story about the same character, who's now become very old, but still lively and energetic.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Although there are many proposed etymologies for the word copacetic, the truth is no one knows the origin of this word meaning "fine" or "extremely satisfactory."

A drupe is a fleshy fruit with a pit, such as a cherry or peach. A drupelet is a smaller version, such as the little seeded parts that make up a raspberry or blackberry. It was the similarity of druplets to a smartphone's keyboard that helped professional namers come up with the now-familiar smartphone name, Blackberry.

A caller from University Park, Maryland, wonders what's really going on when someone says That's a great question. As it turns out, that is a great question.

This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy had corned beef and cabbage, this little piggy had none. At least, that's the way a caller from Sebastian, Florida, remembers the children's rhyme. Most people remember the fourth little piggy eating roast beef. Did you say it a different way? Tell us about it.

The Japanese developers of an early camera named it Kwannon, in honor of the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Later, the company changed the name to Canon.

A Zionsville, Indiana, man recalls that when his mother issued a warning to her kids, she would add for emphasis: And that's the word with the bark on it. The bark in this case refers to rough-hewn wood that still has bark on it--in other words, it's the pure, unadorned truth.

A customer-service representative from Seattle, Washington, is curious about the phrases people use as a part of leave-taking when they're finishing a telephone conversation. Linguists who conduct discourse analysis on such conversations say these exchanges are less about the statements' literal meaning and more about ways of coming to a mutual agreement that it's time to hang up. Incidentally, physicians whose patients ask the most important questions or disclose key information just as the doctor is leaving refer to this as doorknobbing or getting doorknobbed.

Tokuji Hayakawa was an early-20th-century entrepreneur whose inventions included a mechanical pencil he called the Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil, and later renamed the Ever-Sharp Pencil. Over time his company branched into other types of inventions, and its name was eventually shortened to Sharp.

A rock or particle of debris out in space is called a meteoroid. If it enters the earth's atmosphere, it's a called meteor. So why is it called a meteorite when it falls to earth?

If someone's called a pantywaist, they're being disparaged as weak or timid. The term refers to a baby garment popular in the early 20th century that snapped at the waist. Some people misunderstand the term as pantywaste or panty waste, but that's what linguists jokingly call an eggcorn.

A pair of Australian men interrupted their night of partying to foil a robbery, and captured much of it on video. They went on to give a hilarious interview about it all, in which one mentioned that he "tripped over a sign and busted my plugger." The word plugger is an Aussie name for the type of rubber footwear also known as a flip-flop.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Whistle in the Dark - 12 December 2016


Mon, Dec 12, 2016


Echoes of the Greatest Generation, and a tasty bite of history. The language and melodies of military marching songs can connect grown children with their parents who served. Is there a collection of those military cadences somewhere? Also, a story about a woman sifting through her parents' love letters from World War II, and a puzzling phrase to describe an awkward love triangle: "running a sandy." Finally, is Northern Spy the name of a military operation or a kind of apple? The surprising story of how this apple variety got its name. Plus, kayakers' slang, wooden spoon, Shakespearean knock-knock jokes, Sunday throat, celestial discharge, and mickey mousing.

FULL DETAILS

Whitewater rafting has a rich tradition of slang that includes such terms as boulder garden, strainer, and drop pool.

An Indianapolis, Indiana, teacher and his class wonder about the origin of whistling in the dark, which means "to put on a brave face in a scary situation." As it happens, the teacher's band, The Knollwood Boys, recorded a song by the same name.

A listener reports that the pronunciation of Novi, Michigan, is counterintuitive. It's pronounced noh-VYE.

The manager of a cider mill in Rochester, Minnesota, is curious about the name of the variety of apple known as Northern Spy. The origins of its name are murky, but it was likely popularized by the 1830 novel Northern Spy, about a wily abolitionist. Other names for this apple are Northern Pie and Northern Spice.

An Omaha, Nebraska, listener has a word for using Google Earth to fly around the planet virtually and zoom in on far-flung locations: floogling, a combination of flying and Googling.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about 4-letter anagrams. For example, what letters can anagram into words meaning either "cruel" or "designation"?

A historian in Indianapolis, Indiana, says a World War II-era letter from her father to her mother refers to running a sandy. It's a phrase that derives from poker, and the act of sandbagging, or in other words, "bluffing," an opponent.

Locals pronounce the name of the town of Thoreau, New Mexico, as thuh-ROO.

In Cantabrigian tradition, a wooden spoon was jokingly awarded to low achievers in mathematics. That practice later extended to other types of competitions. It's also key to a heartwarming story about a charitable organization that arose from a friendly spoon-swapping rivalry between English and Irish rugby teams.

If you complain that something went down my Sunday throat, you mean that it went into your windpipe. To go down your Sunday throat may derive from the fact that just as Sunday is a special day of the week, the bite you swallowed went into an unaccustomed place.

In kayakers' slang, a park and play is a part of a river where you park your vehicle closer to a river and enter the water to paddle around a particular water feature, then paddle back to your launch spot rather than continue downstream. If you make a wet exit, you end up in the water.

As we mentioned earlier, knock-knock jokes were once a fad sweeping the nation. What we didn't mention is that there are quite a few Shakespearean knock-knock jokes. Such as: Knock-Knock. Who's there? Et. Et who? Et who, Brute? (Hey, don't blame us! Blame some guy named Duane.)  

A caller from San Antonio, Texas, remembers a song her father, a World War II vet, used to sing: Around the corner and under a tree/ A sergeant major proposed to me / Who would marry you? I would like to know / For every time I look at your face it makes me want to go -- at which point the verse repeats. These marching songs are known as cadence calls or Jody calls. They apparently arose among American troops during World War II, when a soldier named Willie Duckworth began chanting to boost his comrades' spirits. Such songs echo the rhythmic work songs sung by enslaved Africans and prison chain gangs, which helped to make sure they moved in unison and also helped pass the time.  

The Indianapolis, Indiana, caller who asked about running a sandy figures out the movie she saw that included that phrase: Action in Arabia. And sure enough, the expression is used by a character during a poker game.

Who is she from home? meaning "What's her maiden name?" is a construction common in communities with significant Polish heritage. It's what linguists call a calque--a word or phrase from another language translated literally into another. From home is a literal translation of Polish z domu, just as English blueblood is a literal translation of the older Spanish term sangre azul.

Celestial discharge, in medical slang, refers to a patient's death.

The terms mickey mouse and mickey mousing can be used as pejoratives.

In whitewater rafting, river left and river right refer to the banks of the river on either side when looking downstream.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett and produced by Stefanie Levine.

--

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Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Chocolate Gravy - 5 December 2016


Mon, Dec 05, 2016


Say you have an acquaintance you always see at the dog park or the playground. But one night, you run into them at the movies, and for a moment, it's confusing. Is there a word for that disorienting sense of someone or something being out of place? Yes! Plus: the term sea change doesn't have to do with winds changing direction on the surface of the sea. It's a kind of profound transformation that Shakespeare wrote about. Finally, Martha and Grant have recommendations for the book lovers on your gift list. Plus: titch, chocolate gravy, the overview effect, the cat's pajamas, snot otters, and zoomies.

FULL DETAILS

The book Lingo, by Dutch linguist and journalist Gaston Dorren, is an enjoyable whirlwind tour of languages throughout Europe.

An anachronism is something that's placed in the wrong time period, like a Roman soldier wearing Birkenstocks. But what's the word for if someone or something is literally out of place geographically speaking? You can use the word anatopism, from the Greek word for "place," or anachorism, from Greek for "country."

An eighth-grade history teacher from Denton, Texas, is teaching about colonial America, and wonders if there's a difference between the phrases to found a colony or establish a colony.

The "Think and Grin" section of Boy's Life magazine has some pretty corny jokes, including one about a parking space.

The word titch means "a small amount," and is most likely just a variant of touch.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski offers a game that involves finding the synonym with the most syllables. For example, one synonym for the word dumb is vacuous. But can you think of another that has five syllables?

A listener in San Antonio, Texas, has fond memories of chocolate gravy over biscuits, the word gravy in this sense having nothing to do with a meat-based sauce. Grant shares his mother's own recipe.

Overview effect refers to the cognitive shift in awareness and sense of awe experienced by astronauts who observe Earth from space. The term also inspired the title of Benjamin Grant's new book, Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, a collection of spectacular images culled from satellite photographs.

Where does the accent fall in the word Caribbean? Most English speakers stress the second syllable, not the third. The word derives from the name of the Carib Indians, also the source of the word cannibal.

The Italian word ponte means "bridge," as in the Ponte Vecchio of Florence. Ponte now also denotes the Monday or Friday added to make for a long weekend.

A sea change is a profound transformation, although some people erroneously use it to mean a slight shift, as when winds change direction on the surface of the ocean. In reality, the term refers to the kind of change effected on something submerged in salt water, as in Ariel's song from Shakespeare's The Tempest.

It's book recommendation time! Grant recommends the Trenton Lee Stewart series for young readers, starting with The Mysterious Benedict Society. Martha praises Ronni Lundy's Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes, a love letter to the cuisine, folkways, history, and language of Appalachia.

A San Antonio, Texas, listener lives in a house built by his grandfather, who was from Finland. The house has a small window in an upper corner that supposedly was designed to ensure that evil spirits could escape from the house. He thinks it's called a grum hole. Ever heard of it?

Why do we say I'm just joshing you? Was there a Josh who inspired this verb?

A snot otter is a kind of salamander.

The cat's pajamas, denoting something excellent, arose in the 1920's along with many similarly improbable phrases involving animals and their anatomy or possessions, including the gnat's elbow, the eel's ankles, and the elephant's instep.

What do you call it when your dog or cat suddenly turns into a blur of fur, racing through the house? Trainers and behaviorists call those frenetic random activity periods or FRAPs. Other people just call them zoomies.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett and produced by Stefanie Levine.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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Mustard On It (Rebroadcast) - 28 November 2016


Mon, Nov 28, 2016


When does a word's past make it too sensitive to use in the present? In contra dancing, there's a particular move that dancers traditionally call a gypsy. But there's a growing recognition that many people find the term gypsy offensive. A group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. Plus, the surprising story behind why we use the phrase in a nutshell to sum things up. A hint: it goes all the way back to Homer's Iliad. And finally, games that feature imaginary Broadway shows and tweaked movie titles with new plots. Also, the phrases put mustard on it, lately deceased, resting on one's laurels, and throw your hat into the room, plus similes galore.


FULL DETAILS

A game making the rounds online involves adding the ending -ing to the names of movies, resulting in clever new plots. For example, on our Facebook group, one member observed that The Blair Witch Project becomes The Blair Witch Projecting, "in which high-schooler Blair Witch reads too much into the inflection of her friends' words."

Which is correct: rest on one's laurels or rest on one's morals? The right phrase, which refers to refusing to settle for one's past accomplishments, is the former. In classical times, winners of competitions were awarded crowns made from the fragrant leaves of bay laurels. For the same reason, we bestow such honors as Poet Laureate and Nobel Laureate.

When someone urges you to put some mustard on it, they want you to add some energy and vigor. It's a reference to the piquancy of real, spicy mustard, and has a long history in baseball.

Need a synonym for "nose"? Try this handy word from a 1904 dialect dictionary: sneeze-horn.

Those little musical interludes on radio programs, particularly public radio shows, go by lots of names, including stinger, button, bumper, and bridge. By the way, the fellow who chooses and inserts them in our show is our engineer and technical editor, Tim Felten, who also happens to be a professional musician.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about Broadway show titles--but with a twist.

There's a long tradition in contra dancing of a particular move called a "gypsy." Many people now consider the term "gypsy" offensive, however, because of the history of discrimination against people of Romani descent, long referred to as gypsies. So a group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. We explain why they should.

In the game of adding -ing to movie titles, Erin Brockovich becomes Erin Brockoviching, the story of a crotchety Irishwoman's habit of complaining.

When is it appropriate to use the word late to describe someone who has died? Late, in this sense, is short for lately deceased. There's no hard and fast time frame, although it's been suggested that anywhere from five to 30 years is about right. It's best to use the word in cases where it may not be clear whether the person is still alive, or when it appears in a historical context, such as "The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 in honor of the late John F. Kennedy."

In the game of appending -ing to a movie title to change its plot, the movies Strangers on a Train and Network both become films about corporate life.

A simile is a rhetorical device that describes by comparing two different things or ideas using the word like or as. But what makes a good simile? The 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases, by Yale public speaking instructor Grenville Kleiser, offers a long list similes he'd collected for students to use as models, although some clearly work better than others.

In a nutshell refers to something that's "put concisely," in just a few words. The phrase goes all the way back to antiquity, when the Roman historian Pliny described a copy of The Iliad written in such tiny script that it could fit inside a nutshell.

Among many African-Americans, the term kitchen refers to the hair at the nape of the neck. It may derive from Scots kinch, a "twist of rope" or "kink."

Some of the more successful similes in Grenville Kleiser's 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases include The sky was like a peach and Like footsteps on wool and Quaking and quivering like a short-haired puppy after a ducking.

To throw your hat into the room is to ascertain whether someone's angry with you, perhaps stemming from the idea of tossing your hat in ahead of to see if someone shoots at it. Ronald Reagan used the expression this way when apologizing to Margaret Thatcher for invading Grenada in 1983 without notifying the British in advance.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Fickle Finger of Fate (#1459)


Mon, Nov 21, 2016


Clean cursing for modern times, more about communicating after a brain injury, and 1970's TV lingo with roots in the Second World War. A young woman wants a family-friendly way to describe a statement that's fraudulent or bogus, but all the words she can think of sound old-fashioned. Is there a better term than malarkey, poppycock, or rubbish? Also, listeners step up to help a caller looking for a succinct way to explain that a brain injury sometimes makes it hard for her to remember words. Finally, you may remember the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate awarded on the old TV show "Laugh-In." As it turns out, though, the phrase "fickle finger of fate" is decades older than that!

FULL DETAILS

Door dwell, hoistway, and terminal landing are all terms from the jargon of elevator design and maintenance.

If you hear someone use the word jumbo used for "bologna," it's a good bet they're from Pittsburgh or somewhere nearby in southwestern Pennsylvania. A regional company, Isaly's, sold a brand of lunchmeat with that name.

Why do say It's academic when referring to a question or topic that's theoretical?

The "Think and Grin" section of Boy's Life magazine has some pretty silly humor, especially in issues from the 1950's.

A listener in Burlington, Vermont, remembers being punished as a youngster for talking during class. His teacher forced him to write out this proverb dozens of times: For those who talk, and talk, and talk, this proverb may appeal. The steam that blows the whistle will never turn the wheel. Translation: If you're talking, then you're not getting work done.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle requires misreading words that begin with the letters P-R-E. For example, the word preaching could be misread as having to do with "hurting beforehand" -- that is, pre-aching.

A young woman from Portland, Oregon, seeks a noun to denote something fake or otherwise dubious. She doesn't want an obvious swear word, but also doesn't like the ones she found in the thesaurus, and thinks malarkey, poppycock, and flim-flam sound too old-fashioned and unnatural for a 20-something to say. Fraud, fake, hoax, janky, don't sound quite right for her either. The hosts suggest chicanery, sham, rubbish, bogus, or crap.

A San Diego, California, listener is bothered by colleagues' use of the expression I'll revert meaning "I'll get back to you."

Regarding suffering caused by others, singer Bob Marley had this to say: The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.

Put up your dukes! means "Get ready to fight!" But its etymology is a bit uncertain. One story goes that it's from Cockney rhyming slang, in which dukes is short for Dukes of York, a play on the slang term fork, meaning "hand." But the phrase may originate from or be influenced by a Romany word involving hands.

Why do we call a peanut a goober? The word comes from the Bantu languages of East Africa.

If you need a synonym for freckle, there's always the word ephelis, from ancient Greek for "nail stud."

Listeners step up to help a caller from an earlier show who was seeking a succinct way to explain that a brain injury sometimes makes it difficult for her to remember words.

Primarily in the Southern United States, the word haint refers to a ghost or supernatural being, such as a poltergeist. Haint appears to be a variant of haunt.

The word pretty, used to modify an adjective, as in pretty good or pretty bad, has strayed far from its etymological roots, which originally had to do with "cunning" or "craft."

Here's something to think about the next time somebody says A penny for your thoughts.

The TV show "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," popular in the late 1960's and early 1970's was famous for awarding its goofy trophy, the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate. But the term fickle finger of fate is actually decades older than that.

Tunket is a euphemism for "hell," as in Where in tunket did I put my car keys? No one knows its origin.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett and produced by Stefanie Levine.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Stars and Garters - 14 November2016


Mon, Nov 14, 2016


Novelist Charles Dickens created many unforgettable characters, but he's also responsible for coining or popularizing lots of words, like "flummox" and "butterfingers." Also, the life's work of slang lexicographer Jonathon Green is now available to anyone online. Finally, the art of accepting apologies. If a co-worker is habitually late but apologizes each time, what words can you use to accept their latest apology but also communicate that you never want it to happen again?

FULL DETAILS

What do the terms flummox, butterfingers, and the creeps have in common? They were all either invented or popularized by Charles Dickens. The earliest citations we have for many familiar words and phrases are from the work of the popular 19th-century novelist. You can find more in What the Dickens: Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them by Brian Kozlowski.

A San Diego, California, 12-year-old whose last name is Jones wonders: Why do so many African-Americans as well as European Americans share the same last name?

The exclamation Oh my stars and garters! likely arose from a reference to the British Order of the Garter. The award for this highest level of knighthood includes an elaborate medal in the shape of a star. The expression was probably reinforced by Bless my stars!, a phrase stemming from the idea that the stars influence one's well-being.

If you're having a particularly tough time, you might say that you're having a hard fight with a short stick. The idea is that if you're defending yourself with a short stick, you'd be at a disadvantage against an opponent with a longer one.

A man in Chalk Mountain, Texas, recalls a sublime evening of conversation with a new German friend. As they parted, the woman uttered a German phrase suggesting that she wanted the moment to last forever. It's Verweile doch, Du bist so schoen, and it comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's tragic play, Faust.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's game involves clues about the names of countries. For example, a cylindrical container, plus an abbreviation on the back of a tube of toothpaste, combine to form the name of what neighbor to the north?

Why is a factory called a plant?

A flat tire is a slang term for the result of stepping on someone's heel so that their shoe comes loose.

The word jackpot can denote the pile of money you win at a game of poker, but another definition is that of "trouble" or "tangled mess" or "logjam."

What do you call the holes in a Pop-Tart? Those indentations in crackers, Pop-Tarts, and similar baked goods are called docker holes or docking holes, used to release air as the dough gets hotter.

The phrase Don't cabbage that, meaning "don't steal that," may derive from the old practice of tailors' employees pilfering scraps of leftover fabric, which, gathered up in one's hands, resemble a pile of cabbage leaves.

The first known citation for the word dustbin is credited to Charles Dickens.

Language enthusiasts, rejoice! Jonathon Green's extraordinary Dictionary of Slang is now available online.

What's the most effective way to respond to someone who keeps apologizing for the same offense? Say, for example, that a co-worker is habitually late to work, and is forever apologizing for it, but does nothing to change that behavior? How do you accept their apology for their latest offense, but communicate that you don't want it to happen again?

When comparing two things, what's the correct word to use after the word different? Is it different than or different from? In the United States, different from is traditional, and almost always the right choice. In Britain, the most common phrase is different to.

If a Southerner warns she's going to put a spider on your biscuit, it means she's about to give you bad news.

A listener in Omaha, Nebraska, says his mother always ends a phone conversation not with Goodbye, but 'Mbye. How common is that?

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Proof in the Pudding (Rebroadcast) - 7 November 2016


Mon, Nov 07, 2016


Have you ever offered to foster a dog or cat, but wound up adopting instead? There's an alliterative term for that. And when you're on the job, do niceties like "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" make you sound too formal? Not if it comes naturally. And what about the term "auntie" (AHN-tee)? In some circles, it's considered respectful to address a woman that way, even if she's not a relative. Also, the old saying "The proof is in the pudding" makes no sense when you think about it. That's because the original meaning of pudding had nothing to do with the kind we eat for dessert today.

FULL DETAILS

When people who foster rescue animals break down and adopt the animal instead, you've happily committed a foster flunk.

A native of Houston, Texas, moves to a few hundred miles north to Dallas and discovers that people there say she's wrong to call the road alongside the highway a feeder road rather than a frontage road. Actually, both terms are correct. The Texas Highway Man offers a helpful glossary of road and traffic terms, particularly those used in Texas.

A listener from Silver City, New Mexico, writes that when he was a child and pouted with his lower lip stuck out, his aunt would say Stick that out a little farther, and I'll write the Ten Commandments on it with a mop.

Snarky refers to someone or something "irritable," "sharply critical," or "ill-tempered." It goes back to a 19th-century word meaning "to snort."

According to the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, the expression throw it over the hill means "to get rid of something." In Appalachia, the phrase can also mean "wrap it up," as in bring something to a close.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz that's all about the word for. An example: There's a cave that accommodates a large ursine mammal when it hibernates during the winter. But what's it "for"?

A listener in Billings, Montana, says his brother is an English teacher who corrects his pronunciation of forte, meaning "strong point." Pedants will insist that it should be pronounced FORT, but that reflects an assumption about its etymology that's flat-out wrong. Besides, the far more common pronunciation now is FOR-tay. The bottom line is t's a word that raises hackles either way you say it, so it's best to replace it with a synonym.

If someone spilled a box of paper clips, for example, would you say that they wasted the paper clips, even though the clips could be picked up and re-used? Although most people wouldn't, this sense of waste meaning "to spill" is used among many African-American speakers in the American South, particularly in Texas.

Our discussion of eponymous laws prompted Peg Brekel of Casa Grande, Arizona, to send us one based on her years of experience in a pharmacy, where she had to keep minding the counter even during her lunch break. Peg's Law: The number of customers who come to the counter is directly proportional to how good your food tastes hot.

Is saying Yes, Ma'am and No, Sir when addressing someone in conversation too formal or off-putting? Not if it's clear that those niceties come naturally to you.

A Milwaukee, Wisconsin, listener who heard our conversation about the phrase sharp as a marshmallow sandwich wonders about a similar expression that denotes a person who's not all that bright: sharp as a bag of marsh. Variations of this insult include sharp as a bowling ball and sharp as bag of wet mice.

 A dancer in the Broadway production of The Lion King says he and his colleagues are curious about the use of the term Auntie (pronounced "AHN-tee) to refer to an older woman, regardless of whether she's a blood relative. Auntie is often used among African-American speakers in the American South as a sign of respect for an older woman for whom one has affection.

If you're in the three-comma club, you're a billionaire--a reference to the number of commas needed to separate all those zeroes in your net worth.

The verb to kibitz has more than one meaning. It can mean "to chitchat" or "to look on giving unsolicited advice." The word comes to English through Yiddish, and may derive from German Kiebitz, a reference to a folk belief that the bird is a notorious meddler.

On the face of it, the expression the proof is in the pudding doesn't make sense. It's a shortening of the proverbial saying, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Pudding is an old word for sausage, and in this case the proof is the act of testing it by tasting it.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Boss Of Me - 31 October 2016


Mon, Oct 31, 2016


If you want to be a better writer, try skipping today's bestsellers, and read one from the 1930's instead. Or read something besides fiction in order to find your own metaphors and perspective. Plus, just because a city's name looks familiar doesn't mean you should assume you know how the locals pronounce it. The upstate New York town spelled R-I-G-A isn't pronounced like the city in Latvia. Turns out lots of towns and streets have counterintuitive names. Finally, why do we describe being socially competitive as "keeping up with the Joneses"? The Joneses, it turns out, were comic strip characters. Also, sugar off, filibuster, you're not the boss of me, and lean on your own breakfast.

FULL DETAILS

When it comes to the names of towns and cities, the locals don't necessarily pronounce them the way you expect. Charlotte, Vermont, for example, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, not the first--and therein lies a history lesson. The town was chartered in 1762, the year after England's King George III married the German-speaking Princess Charlotte, and it's named in her honor.
What's the deal with the use of person, as in I'm a dog person or She's a cat person? The word person this way functions as a substitute for the Greek-derived suffix -phile, meaning "lover of," and goes back at least a century.

A woman from Hartford, Connecticut, remembers her mom used the term clackers to denote those floppy, rubber-soled shoes otherwise known as flip-flops, go-aheads, or zoris. Anyone else use clackers in that way?

A listener in Reno, Nevada, wants to know: If one member of a long-term, unmarried couple dies, what's a good term for the surviving partner, considering that the usual terms widow and widower aren't exactly correct?  

To sugar off means to complete the process of boiling down the syrup when making maple sugar. Some Vermonters use that same verb more generally to refer to something turns out, as in that phrase How did that sugar off?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle involves social media "books" that rhyme with the name Facebook. For example, Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron, posts on on what fancifully named social media outlet?

A Los Angeles, California, listener says his grandmother, a native Spanish speaker, used the word filibustero to mean "ruffians." Any relation to the English word filibuster? As a matter of fact, yes.

To encourage diners to dig into a delicious meal, an Italian might say Mangia!, a French person Bon appetit! and Spaniard would say Buen provecho. But English doesn't seem to have its own phrase that does the job in quite the same way.

A Palmyra, Indiana, listener observes that in online discussions of Pokemon Go, Americans and French-speaking Canadians alike use the word lit to describe an area of town where lots of people playing the game. This usage apparently is related to the earlier use of lit to describe a great party with lots of activity, or recreational drug use.

If you think the city of Riga, New York, is pronounced like the city in Latvia, think again.

A listener in Brazil wants to know about the source of the phrase keeping up with the Joneses, which refers to trying to compete with others in terms of possessions and social status. This expression was popularized by a comic strip with the same name drawn by newspaper cartoonist Arthur "Pop" Momand for several years during the early 20th century.

If you're sitting on a subway or airplane seat and someone's invading your space, you can always offer the colorful rebuke Lean on your own breakfast, meaning "straighten up and move over."
Essayist Rebecca Solnit has excellent advice for aspiring writers.

The phrase You're not the boss of me may have been popularized by the They Might Be Giants song that serves as the theme for TV's "Malcolm in the Middle." But this turn of phrase goes back to at least 1883.

A woman whose first language is Persian wonders about the word enduring. Can she describe the work of being a parent as enduring? While the phrase is grammatically correct, the expression enduring parenting not good idiomatic English.

The poetic Spanish phrase Nadie te quita lo bailado expressing the idea that once you've made a memory, you'll always have it, no matter what. Literally, it translates as "no one can take away what you've danced."

In a roadway, the center lane for passing or turning left is sometimes called the chicken lane, a reference to the old game of drivers from opposite directions daring each other in a game of chicken. For the same reason, some people refer to it as the suicide lane.  

A bible lump, or a bible bump, is a ganglion cyst that sometimes forms on the wrist. It's also called a book cyst, the reason being that people sometimes try to smash them with a book, but  don't try this at home!

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Sunny Side Up - 24 October 2016


Mon, Oct 24, 2016


Baseball has a language all its own: On the diamond, a snow cone isn't what you think it is, and Three Blind Mice has nothing to do with nursery rhymes. And how do you describe someone who works at home while employed by a company in another city? Are they telecommuters? Remote workers? One writer wants to popularize a new term for this modern phenomenon: working in place. Also, a powerful essay on white privilege includes a vivid new metaphor for the pain of accumulated slights over a lifetime: chandelier pain. Plus, sunny side up eggs, count nouns, bluebird weather, harp on, think tank, thought box, and how to remember to spell Mississippi.

FULL DETAILS


Baseball is a rich source of slang, and The Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson is a trove of such language. A snow cone, in baseball lingo, is a ball caught so that it's sticking up out of the fielder's glove. And which month of the year is called Dreamer's Month? It's March, when loyal fans believe that anything is possible for their team in the coming season.

Sunny side up eggs sometime go by the name looking at you eggs, an apparent reference to how the yolk in the middle of the egg white makes them resemble eyes. A similar idea appears in the German name, which translates as "mirror egg," and in Hebrew, where such eggs go by a name that translates as "eye egg." The Japanese term, medama yaki, translates as "fried eyeball." In Latvia, they're "ox eyes," and "cow eyes" in Indonesia.

In baseball, a two-o'clock hitter is one who hits well in batting practice, but not during the game. It used to be that games traditionally started at 3 p.m., with batting practice an hour before.

An attorney in El Centro, California, is bothered by the phrase a large amount of people, because the word amount is usually applied to mass nouns, not count nouns. There are exceptions, however.  

In baseball slang, three blind mice denotes the three umpires on the field.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has an artful quiz about, well, art. For example, remove two letters from the end of this painting's title, and now the couple in it has been replaced by a pale young man outside a farmhouse sporting a black T-shirt, eyeshadow, and several piercings. What's the name of this new painting?

In Arabic-speaking families, it's not uncommon for mothers to address their children with the Arabic word for "mama" or for fathers to use the word for "father" when addressing their offspring. These words are used in this way as a term of endearment. Some other languages do the same.

Writer Isabel Allende offers this writing advice: Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the Muse shows up, too.

A listener in Honolulu, Hawaii, wonders about an expression used by her husband's grandmother, who was from Eastern Kentucky: He left so fast, that you could have played marbles on his coattails. The notion that a person is running so fast his coattails are stretched out perfectly flat goes back at least to the 1850's.

Since the 1950's, the term think tank has meant "a research institute." But even earlier than that, going as far back as the 1880's, think tank referred "a person's mind." Another slang term for one's mind is thought box.

A Seattle, Washington, listener wants to know why, when marking time, we say One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, as opposed to other states or rivers. In the United Kingdom, they're more likely to say hippopotamus. Some people count instead with the word banana, or Nevada, or one thousand one. Also, a mnemonic for spelling the pesky name Mississippi: M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked-letter-I-humpback-humpback-I.

In Maryland and Virginia, bluebird weather is a brief period of warm weather in autumn.

What do you call it when you work for a corporation but aren't based in the same place as its headquarters. Writer Michael Erard believe that the term working remotely doesn't really characterize it, and instead has suggested working in place.

A caller from New York City wonders about his grandmother's use of the word says rather than said when she's telling a story about something that happened in the past. It's a form of the historical present tense that helps describe recounted or reported speech.

In a powerful essay on white privilege, Good Black News editor Lori Lakin Hutcherson includes the term chandelier pain to describe how painful accumulated slights can be. Medical professionals use the term chandelier pain to refer to the result of touching an exquisitely painful spot--so painful that patients involuntarily rise from the examining table or reach toward the ceiling.  

Does the expression to harp on something, as in "to nag," have anything to do with the stringed instrument one plays by plucking? Yes. As early as the 16th century to harp all of one string meant to keep playing the same single note monotonously.

We talk about something occurring beforehand, so why don't we talk about something happening afterhand? Actually, afterhand goes all the way back to 15th-century English, even though it's not that commonly used today.

A New Hampshire listener recalls that as a boy, when he talked friends within earshot of his mother and said referred to her as She, his mother would pipe up with She, being the cat's mother. It's an old expression suggesting that it's insulting to refer to people in the third person if they're present.

The early 20th-century Spanish poet Antonio Machado has a beautiful poem about finding one's way. The translation in this segment is by Anna Rosenwong and Maria Jose Gimenez.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

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Spur of the Moment - 17 October 2016


Mon, Oct 17, 2016


A caller with a 25-year-old parrot wonders: How much language do birds really understand? Plus, Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo. Well . . .  you can guess the rest. But there was a time when these goofy jokes were a brand-new craze sweeping the nation. Finally, the words "coffee" and "sugar" both come from Arabic, as does another familiar word: ghoul. There's a spooky story about its origin. Also, freckle, diamond in the rough, spur of the moment, literary limericks, the pronunciation of divisive, and a cold vs. the flu. ??FULL DETAILS??
In 1936, newspapers across the United States breathlessly reported on a new craze sweeping the nation: knock-knock jokes -- and they were at least as corny as today's version.

A seventh-grader from Colorado wonders where the word freckle comes from. This word's origin is a bit murky, but appears to be related to old Scandinavian term rooted in the idea of "scattering," like the seeds that freckles resemble. The German word for these bits of pigment is Sommersprossen, literally, "summer sprouts."

A native New Yorker who lived as a boy with his grandmother in South Carolina recalls coming home late one day and offering a long-winded excuse, prompting his grandmother to declare, Boy, you're as deep as the sea! She probably meant simply that he was in deep trouble.

Our earlier conversation about the word ruminate prompts a Fort Worth, Texas, listener to send a poem that his aunt, an elementary-school teacher, made him memorize as a child:  A gum-chewing boy and a cud-chewing cow / To me, they seem alike somehow / But there's a difference -- I see it now / It's the thoughtful look on the face of the cow.

What's the meaning of the phrase diamond in the rough? Does it refer to a rose among thorns, to unrealized potential? The phrase derives from the diamond industry, where a diamond in the rough is one taken from the ground but still unpolished. The word diamond is an etymological relative of adamant, meaning "unbreakable," as well as adamantine, which means the same thing.

Looking for an extremely silly knock-knock joke? Here's one that's as silly as they come:

Knock, knock. Who's there? Cows go. Try figuring out the rest.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's challenge involves phrases of two words, each of which ends in the letter a. For example, if you mix nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, you get a yellow, fuming, corrosive liquid that eats metals, even gold. What's it called?

A listener in Hartland, Vermont, has a 25-year-old African parrot named Trouble, and says he's often asked about the bird's vocabulary and how the two of them communicate, which raises the question "What is a word?" Grant argues that the better question is "Does this bird have a language?" and the answer is no. For example, the bird might associate an object with a particular word, but wouldn't understand pronouns, nor would the bird be able to comprehend recursive statements that contain ideas embedded in ideas.

Before knock-knock jokes swept the country in 1936, another silly parlor game called Handies was all the rage.

To do something on the spur of the moment, or to "act spontaneously," comes from the idea of using a sharp device to urge on a horse.

The English language includes several words deriving from Arabic, such as coffee, sugar, and giraffe. Another is ghoul, which comes from an Arabic term for a "shapeshifting demon."

How do you pronounce the second syllable in the word divisive? This question divides lots of English speakers. Either is fine, but the use of a short i is more recent, first recorded in dictionaries in 1961.

Why do we say someone has a cold when we say someone else has the flu, and another person has croup?

A listener in Abu Dhabi responded to our request for literary limericks with one of her own. It starts with "There once was a lass on a ledge … "

A bank teller suffered a brain injury and now sometimes finds it hard to remember simple words. She wants a succinct way to explain to her customers why she's having difficulty.

Some knock-knock jokes stir the emotions, including Knock-knock. Who's there? Boo ...

A woman in Middlesex, Vermont, says that when she was a girl her parents sometimes described her as porky, but they weren't referring to her appearance -- they meant she was acting rebelliously. This use of the word might be related to pawky, or "impertinent," in British English.

Don't worry, be happy -- or, as a quote attributed to Montaigne goes, My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

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Hell For Leather - 10 October 2016


Mon, Oct 10, 2016


Victorian slang and a modern controversy over language and gender. In the early 1900's, a door-knocker wasn't just what visitors used to announce their arrival, it was a type of beard with a similar shape. And in the 21st century: Is it ever okay to call someone a lady? Or is woman always the better term? Plus, surprising stories behind some familiar car brands. Chances are you've been stopped in traffic behind a car named for an ancient Persian deity -- or passed by an automobile that takes its name from a bilingual pun involving German and Latin.
?FULL DETAILS??
The 1909 volume Passing English of the Victorian Era by J. Redding Ware has a wealth of slang terms from that era. One entry even includes musical notation for Please mother open the door, a slang phrase that was sung, rather than spoken, to express admiration for a woman.

A 13-year-old from San Diego, California, wonders: Why do we call that breakfast staple toast instead of, say, toasted bread? It's natural to find shortcuts for such terms; we've also shortened pickled cucumbers to just pickles.

A wise Spanish proverb, Cada cabeza es un mundo, translates as "Every head is a world," meaning we each have our own perspective.

A caller from Long Beach, California, say hell for leather describes "a reckless abandonment of everything but the pursuit of speed." But why hell for leather? The expression seems to have originated in the mid-19th century, referencing the wear and tear on the leather from a rough ride on horseback at breakneck speed. But similar early versions include hell falleero and hell faladery. There's also hell for election, which can mean the same thing, and appears to be a variation of hell-bent for election.  

Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes. The job requires extra pluck and zeal from every young wage-earner. Both of those sentences are pangrams, meaning they use every letter of the alphabet. Our Facebook group has been discussing these and lots of other alternatives to the old typing-teacher classic The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy, sleeping dog.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has designed a puzzle inspired by the movie Finding Dory about two language experts who journey around the ocean looking for le mot juste. For example, what sea creature whose name literally means "daughter of the wind"?

When is it appropriate to refer to someone a lady? Is woman a better word to use? Is it ever appropriate to refer to adult females as girls? It all depends on context -- who's doing the talking and who's doing the listening.

As Mark Twain observed, The compliment that helps us on our way is not the one that is shut up in the mind, but the one that is spoken out. Martha describes a compliments challenge that her friends are taking up on Facebook, with happy results.

A Dallas, Texas, caller says his girlfriend from a rural part of his state has an unusual way of pronouncing certain words. Email sounds like EE-mill, toenail like TOW-nell, and tell-tale like TELL-tell. These sounds are the result of a well-known feature of language change known as a vowel merger.

Riddle time! I exist only when there's light, but direct light kills me. What am I?

The stories behind the brand names of automobiles is sometimes surprising. The name of the Audi derives from a bilingual pun involving a German word, and Mazda honors the central deity of Zoroastrianism, with which the car company's founder had a fascination.

A high-school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, wonders about the origin of the term honky. This word is widely considered impolite, and likely derives from various versions of the term hunky or hunyak used to disparage immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Lots of foods are named for what happens to them. Mozzarella comes from an Italian word that means "cut," feta cheese takes its name from a Greek word meaning the same thing, and schnitzel derives from a German word that also means "to cut."

Why do some people pronounce the word sandwich as SANG-wich or SAM-mitch or SAM-widge?

In the 19th century, the slang term door-knocker referred to a beard-and-mustache combo that ringed the mouth in the shape of a metal ring used to tap on a door.

A Canadian-born caller says her mother, who is from Britain, addresses her grandson as booby.  
In The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, researchers Iona and Peter Opie write that booby is a children's term for "a foolish crybaby," which may be connected.


The 1909 slang collection Passing English of the Victorian Era defines the phrase to introduce shoemaker to tailor this way: "Evasive metaphor for fundamental kicking." In other words, to introduce shoemaker to tailor means to give someone a swift kick in the pants.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Busted Melon (Rebroadcast) - 3 October 2016


Mon, Oct 03, 2016


When writing textbooks about slavery, which words best reflect its cold, hard reality? Some historians are dropping the word "slave" in favor of terms like "enslaved person" and "captive," arguing that these terms are more accurate. And raising a bilingual child is tough enough, but what about teaching them three languages? It's an ambitious goal, but there's help if you want to try. Plus, a class of sixth-graders wonders about the playful vocabulary of The Lord of the Rings. Where did Tolkien come up with this stuff? Also, funny school mascots, grawlixes, that melon's busted, attercop, Tomnoddy, purgolders, and dolly vs. trolley vs. hand truck.

FULL DETAILS

In an earlier episode, we discussed funny school mascot names. Listeners wrote in with more, including the Belfry Bats (the high school mascot of Belfry, Montana) and the Macon Whoopie hockey team, from Macon, Georgia.

A Fort Worth, Texas, couple disagrees about how to pronounce the word gymnast, but both JIM-nist and the more evenly stressed JIM-NAST are fine.

A musician from Youngstown, Ohio, is designing an album cover for his band's latest release. He wants to use a grawlix, one of those strings of punctuation marks that substitute for profanity. "Beetle Bailey" cartoonist Mort Walker coined the term, but is there a grammar of grawlixes?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about words and phrases that people have tried to trademark, including a two-word phrase indicating that someone's employment has been terminated, which a certain presidential candidate tried unsuccessfully to claim as his own.

He's a native English speaker who's fluent in Spanish. She grew up in Cameroon speaking French. They're planning a family, and hoping to raise their children to speak all three. What are the best strategies for teaching children to speak more than two languages? The Multilingual Children's Association offers helpful tips.

Offbeat mascot names from Montana include the Powell County Wardens (so named because the high school is in the same county as the Montana State Prison), and the Missoula Loyola Sacred Heart Breakers.

Growing up in Jamaica, a woman used to hear her fashion-designer mother invoke this phrase to indicate that something was good enough, even if it was flawed: A man on a galloping horse wouldn't see it. Variations include it'll never be seen on a galloping horse and a blind man on a galloping horse wouldn't see it. The idea is that the listener to relax and take the long view. The expression has a long history in Ireland and England, and the decades of Irish influence in Jamaica may also account for her mother's having heard it.

The country of Cameroon is so named because a 15th-century Portuguese explorer was so struck by the abundance of shrimp in a local river, he dubbed it Rio dos Camaroes, or "river of shrimp."

The organization Historic Hudson Valley describes the African-American celebration of Pinkster in an exemplary way. It avoids the use of the word slave and instead uses terms such as enslaved people, enslaved Africans, and captives. It's a subtle yet powerful means of affirming that slavery is not an inherent condition, but rather one imposed from outside.

A sixth-grade teacher from San Antonio, Texas, says he and his students are reading The Lord of the Rings. They're curious about the words attercop, which means "spider" (and a relative of the word cobweb) and Tomnoddy, which means "fool."  Grant recommends the book The Ring of Words, as well as these online resources: Why Did Tolkien Use Archaic Language? and A Tolkien English Glossary.

If you're in the Ozarks, you might hear the expression that means the same as water under the bridge or spilled milk: that melon's busted. The idea in all three cases is that something irrevocable has happened, and there's no going back.

A listener from Abilene, Texas, recounts the incredulous reaction he got when he was in England and asked some burly fellows for a dolly, meaning a wheeled conveyance for moving heavy loads. He asked for a two-wheeler, then a hand truck, and finally learned that what they were expecting him to ask for a trolley.  

Madison East High School in Madison, Wisconsin, is the proud home of the Purgolders. That school mascot resembles a golden puma in purple attire, with a portmanteau name that combines those two colors.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Jump Steady (Rebroadcast) - 26 September 2016


Mon, Sep 26, 2016


Secret codes, ciphers, and telegrams. It used to be that in order to transmit information during wartime, various industries encoded their messages letter by letter with an elaborate system--much like today's digital encryption. Grant breaks down some of those secret codes--and shares the story of the most extensive telegram ever sent. Plus, we've all been there: Your friends are on a date, and you're tagging along. Are you a third wheel--or the fifth wheel? There's more than one term for the odd person out. Finally, a rhyming quiz about famous poems. For example, what immortal line of poetry rhymes with: "Prose is a nose is a hose is a pose"? Plus, women named after their mothers, variations on "Happy Birthday," at bay, nannies' charges, and a blues singer who taught us to jump steady.

FULL DETAILS

Great news for scavenger-hunt designers, teenage sleepover guests, and anyone else interested in being cryptic! The old-school commercial codes used for hiding information from the enemy in a telegraphs is at your fingertips on archive.org. Have fun.

If you're single but tagging along on someone else's date, you might be described as a fifth wheel, a term that goes back to Thomas Jefferson's day. Not until much later, after the bicycle had been invented, the term third wheel started becoming more common.

The long popular and newly legal-to-sing "Happy Birthday to You" has always been ripe for lyrical variations, particularly at the end of the song. Some add a cha cha cha or forever more on Channel 4, but a listener tipped us off to another version: Without a shirt!

We spoke on the show not long ago about yuppies and dinks, but neglected to mention silks: households with a single income and lots of kids.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a game of schmoetry—as in, famous lines of poetry where most of the words are replaced with other words that rhyme. For example, "Prose is a nose is a hose is a pose" is a schmoetic take on what famous poem?

A young woman who works as a nanny wants to know why the term charge is used to refer to the youngsters she cares for. Charge goes back to a Latin root meaning, "to carry," and it essentially has to do with being responsible for something difficult. That same sense of "to carry" informs the word charger, as in a type of decorative dinnerware that "carries" a plate.

Plenty of literature is available, and discoverable, online. But there's nothing like the spontaneity, or stochasticity, of browsing through a library and discovering great books at random.

After a recent discussion on the show about garage-sailing, a listener from Henderson, Kentucky, sent us an apt haiku: Early birds gather near a green sea/ Garage doors billow on the morning wind/ Yard-saling.

To jump steady refers to either knocking back booze or knocking boots (or, if you’re really talented, both). It's an idiom made popular by blues singers like Lucille Bogan.

Long distance communication used to be pretty expensive, but few messages have made a bigger dent than William Seward's diplomatic telegram to France, which in 1866 cost him more than $300,000 in today's currency. This pricey message aptly became known as Seward’s Other Folly.

Someone who's being rude or pushy might be said to have more nerves than a cranberry merchant. This idiom is probably a variation on the phrase busier than a cranberry merchant in November, which relates to the short, hectic harvesting season right before Thanksgiving.

The Spanish version of being a fifth wheel on a date is toca el violin, which translates to being the one who plays the violin, as in, they provide the background music. In German, there's a version that translates to, "useless as a goiter."

It's far less common for women in the United States to name their daughters after themselves, but it has been done. Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, is actually Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Jr.

A listener from Dallas, Texas, wonders why we say here, here to cheer someone on, and there, there to calm someone down. Actually, the phrase is hear, hear, and it's imperative, as in, listen to this guy. There, there, on the other hand is the sort of thing a parent might say to console a blubbering child, as in "There, there, I fixed it."

We spoke on the show not long ago about how the phrase to keep something at bay derives from hunting. A listener wrote in with an evocative description of its origin, referring specifically to that period when cornered prey is able to keep predators away--that is, at bay--but only briefly. It's a poignant moment of bravery.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

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Scat Cat (Rebroadcast) - 19 September 2016


Mon, Sep 19, 2016


The dilemma continues over how to spell dilemma! Grant and Martha try to suss out the backstory of why some people spell that word with an "n." A lot of them, it seems, went to Catholic school. Maybe that's a clue? Plus, the saying "Close, but no cigar" gets traced back to an old carnival game. And the French horn isn't actually French—so why in the world do we call it that ? Plus, a word game based on famous ad slogans, the plural form of the computer mouse, a Southern way to greet a sneeze, and remembering a beloved crossword puzzle writer.

FULL DETAILS

The dilemma continues over how to spell dilemma. Are there Catholic school teachers out there still teaching their students to spell it the wrong way, i.e., dilemna?

The saying close but no cigar comes from the famous carnival game wherein a bold fellow tries to swing a sledgehammer hard enough to make a bell ring. The winner of the game, which was popular around 1900, would win a cigar. The game still exists, of course, but tobacco is no longer an appropriate prize for a family game.

Here's a riddle: What seven-letter word becomes longer when the third letter is removed?

The most common plural form of mouse—as in, a computer mouse—is mice. But since the mouse was introduced in the 1960's, tech insiders have applied their own sense of humor and irony to the usage of mice.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game based on nicknames and slogans sure to test your knowledge of both geography and niche comestibles, such as the product sold with the line, That's rich.

We heard from a woman who told her boyfriend about her plan to get her haircut. He responded that he thought that particular style would make her hair "worse." Does the word worse in this case imply that her hair was bad to begin with?

Nook-shotten is an old word meaning that something has many corners or projections. Shakespeare used it in Henry V when he spoke about the nook-shotten isle of Albion.

Scat cat, your tail's on fire is a fun variant of scat cat, get your tail out of the gravy—both of which are Southern ways to say bless you after someone sneezes.

The crossword puzzle community lost an exceptional man when Merl Reagle died recently. Reagle was a gifted puzzle writer and a lovely person who gave his crosswords a sense of life outside the arcane world of word puzzles.

What do you call the phenomenon of running into a dear friend you haven't seen in decades? Deja you, maybe?

The French horn, a beautiful instrument known for its mellow sound, originated as a hunting horn. The French merely added some innovations that made it more of a practical, usable instrument. But professional musicians often prefer to call it simply the horn.

It might be the grooviest new holiday since Burning Man: Hippie Christmas is the annual festivity surrounding the end of the college school year, when students leave perfectly good clothing and household goods by the curb or the dumpster because they don't want to schlep it all back home.

That foam thing you put around a beer or soda can to keep your drink cold and your hand warm is called a koozie. Or a cozy. Or a coozy, or a kozy or any variant of those spellings. It originates from the tea cozy, pronounced with the long o sound. But a patented version with the brand name Koozie came about in the 1980's, making the double-o sound a popular way to pronounce it as well.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

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Listening Is Only Half Of It - 18 September 2016


Mon, Sep 19, 2016


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There's Something About A Way with Words... - 14 September 2016


Wed, Sep 14, 2016


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Tennessee Top Hat (Rebroadcast) - 12 September 2016


Mon, Sep 12, 2016


It's hard enough to get a new word into the dictionary. But what happens when lawmakers get involved? New Jersey legislators passed a resolution as part of an anti-bullying campaign urging dictionary companies to adopt the word "upstander." It means "the opposite of bystander." But will it stick? And: 17th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth was born in New York State, but for most of her childhood, she spoke only Dutch. There's a good reason for that. Plus, practical tips for learning to converse in any foreign language: Think of it like an exercise program, and work out with a buddy. Also, rhyming slang, kick the bucket, behind God's back, world-beaters, Twitter canoes, a slew of slang terms for that yep-nope hairstyle, the mullet.

FULL DETAILS

Plenty of people write to dictionary editors asking for words to be added. It almost never works. But what if politicians make a special request? To urge adoption of the term upstander, as in "the opposite of bystander," to honor those who stand up to bullies, the New Jersey State Senate passed a resolution urging two dictionary publishers to add it. Unfortunately, dictionaries don't work that way. Even so, whether a word is or isn't in the dictionary doesn't determine whether a word is real.

If you're having difficulty parsing the meaning of the word defugalty, or difugalty, the joke's on you. It's just a goofy play on difficulty, one that's popular with grandparents.

To summer and winter about a matter is an old expression that means "to carry on at great length" about it.

A television journalist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wants a generic term for "house of worship" to use in place of the word church in news reports. Synagogue, temple, sanctuary, and mosque are all too specific. What's a fitting alternative?
 
Here's a riddle: What flies when it's born, lies when it's alive, and runs when it's dead?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game based on rhyming words with the word and in the middle. For example, what rhyming phrase is another name for Confederate flag?

A teacher in Dallas, Texas, is trying to learn Spanish in order to chat casually with some of his students. He's having some success with the smartphone app DuoLingo. But an app won't necessarily give him the slang vocabulary he needs. A good way to learn a new language is to approach it as you would a fitness program. Set reasonable goals, commit to the long term, don't expect results overnight, and if possible, practice with a buddy or a trainer.

A Tallahassee listener remembers as a child misunderstanding the sign at the Budget Inn as an exhortation--as in "Bud, get in!"

English rhyming slang had a short run of popularity in the western U.S., thanks in part to Australians who brought it over (and then, again, thanks to a scene in Ocean’s Eleven). But even in the U.K., it's now mostly defunct.

Is there a word for that mind-blowing moment when you think you've heard it all, but then something happens that's completely out of your realm of experience? You might call this phenomenon a marmalade dropper. Others might call it a world-beater.  Have a better term for it?

When a conversation on Twitter gets so crowded that replies contain more handles than actual comments, the result is a tipping Twitter canoe.

For the first nine or ten years of her life, the 17th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth spoke only Dutch. She later used her accent to great effect in her stirring speeches. As Jeroen Dewulf, director of Dutch Studies at University of California, Berkeley, points out in an article in American Speech, as late as the mid-18th century, there were so many Dutch slaveholders in New York and New Jersey meant that up to 20 percent of enslaved Africans in those states spoke Dutch.

Cutting a check is a far more common phrase than tearing off a check, because for years checks weren't perforated, so bankers had to actual use a metal device to cut them.

The idiom kick the bucket, meaning "to die," does not originate from the concept of kicking a bucket out from under one's feet. It has to do with an older meaning of bucket that refers to the wooden beam often found in a barn roof, where an animal carcass might be hung.

A listener from California says her family's way of remarking on rain is to mention the space between falling drops. So a 12-inch rain means there’s about a foot between one drop and the next. Tricky, huh?

The term skinnymalink, or a skinny marink, is one way the Scots refer to someone who's thin. In the United States, the term goes back to the 1870's.

Kentucky waterfall, North Carolina neck warmer, and Tennessee top hat are all terms for the mullet hairstyle.

To say that something's behind God's back is to say that it's really far away. This may refer to Isaiah 38:17, which includes the phrase for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back. In the Caribbean in particular, the saying behind God's back is idiomatic. Lisa Winer writes of it in detail in her Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Beat The Band (Rebroadcast) - 5 September 2016


Mon, Sep 05, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": This week on "A Way with Words": Can language change bad behavior in crowded places? The Irish Railway system has launched ad campaign to encourage passengers to be more generous at boarding time. For example, have you ever rummaged through your belongings or pretended to have an intense phone conversation in order to keep someone from grabbing the seat next to you? Then you're busted -- there's a word for that! Also, one of America's top experts on garage sales is looking for the right term for that kind of bargain-hunting. Is it garage-sailing? Yard-selling? Or something else? Plus, a Godfather-themed word game you can't refuse. And conversational openers, see-saw vs. teeter-totter, ledged out, scartling, trade-last, and beat the band.

FULL DETAILS

If you're the type of person who wants so badly to sit alone on a train that you have strategies for deterring other passengers from taking the seat next to yours, the Irish train system is onto you. Irish Rail's #GiveUpYourSeat campaign has posters all over trains warning people about frummaging (pretending to rummage through your bag in the seat next to yours) and snoofing (spoof snoozing).  

The guy who may be the nation's foremost garage sale expert called us from Crescent City, California, with a question that's vital for anyone writing or thinking about garage sales: Do the verbs garage-saling or yard-saling refer to the person holding the sale or the shopper visiting the sale?

Someone who looks like the wreck of Hesperus isn't exactly looking their best. The idiom comes from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, inspired by an 1839 blizzard off the coast of Massachusetts that destroyed 20 ships.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski presented a word game we couldn't refuse based on the line in The Godfather, "I’m gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." Except in this game, he can't refuse is replaced with other words that rhyme.

There's no one correct way to pronounce buried, but depending on where you live, it might be common to hear it in a way that rhymes with hurried. As the spelling of the word changed from the original old English version, byrgan, no single standard pronunciation was settled on.

A mobile-phoney, as defined by the Irish rail system's new ad campaign, is someone on a train who pretends to be having a phone conversation in order to prevent fellow passengers from taking the seat next to them.

The exhortation in Shakespeare's Henry V, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends," is now a part of common speech. But not every fan of the Bard knows what a breach is. It's simply a gap—a space between two things.

Scartle is an old Scots word meaning to scrape together little bits of things, like picking the coins and crumbs out of a car seat.

Bill Cosby is perhaps the latest but certainly not the first celebrity whom the public has fallen out of love with over something terrible they did that went public. Is there a term for this kind of mass disenchantment with a celebrity?

Goggle-bluffing is the train passenger's trick of averting your line of eyesight so as to fool other passengers into not taking the seat next to you.

The first occasion when a new mother sees company after having a baby is called the upsitting. But upsitting in certain cultures is also used to describe a courtship ritual where two people on either sides of a thin partition get to flirt with each other. William Charles Baldwin talks about it in his book, African Hunting, From Natal to Zambesi.

What do you call the piece of playground equipment with a long board and spots for a kid to sit on either end and make it go up and down? A see-saw? A teeter-totter? A flying jenny, or a joggling board? The term you're most familiar with likely has to do with where you grew up.

When hiking off-trail, it's important to keep an eye on where you've been as well as where you're going. Otherwise, you run the risk of what experienced hikers call being ledged out, which means you've descended to a point where you can't go any farther, but you've slid down so far that you can't go back up and try a different route. It's a good metaphor for life as well.

A trade-last, also known as a told-last, is a compliment that's relayed to the intended recipient by someone else.

We've spoken on the show before about conversation openers that differ from the often dreaded "What do you do?" and we heard from one listener who prefers "What keeps you busy?"

Beat the band, as in, it's snowing to beat the band, or he's dressed to beat the band, is an idiom that's mainly used as a positive intensifier. It evolved from shouting to beat the band, meaning someone is talking so loudly they can be heard over the music.

Billennials, or bilingual millennials, is a new term being bandied about by marketers and television programmers who've realized that young Americans who grew up in Spanish-speaking homes don't necessarily care for the traditional telenovela style shows on Spanish language networks.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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Fighting Artichokes (Rebroadcast) - 29 August 2016


Mon, Aug 29, 2016


What's in a mascot name? Maybe you're a fan of the Banana Slugs, or you cheer for the Winged Beavers. Perhaps your loyalty lies with the Fighting Artichokes. There are some strange names for sports team out there. But what's even stranger is the origin of the word "mascot" itself. It's from a 19th-century opera! And: the host of a television show about gardening is tired of using the verb "to plant," and is desperate for an alternative. But coming up with one is harder than you might think! Plus, a word for that sinking feeling when your favorite restaurant closes. Also, a word quiz based on the party game Taboo, the history of cataract, a begrudging ode to office jargon, and an old children's song about popping the heads off of flowers.

FULL DETAILS

Come From Away, a new musical about the 7000 passengers whose planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after the September 11th attacks, is not only a fine piece of theater. It's also a rich trove of Newfoundland language, including come from away, a noun that means "visitor."

Evergreen State College in Washington is certainly in the running for best school mascot, with the Geoduck. But you can’t forget the UC Santa Cruz Fighting Banana Slugs, or the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes. The term mascot itself was popularized by a 19th century French comic opera, called La mascotte. The word is also related to the Spanish term for "pet," mascota.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English offers a look at some intriguing vocabulary from that part of the world, such as the expression best kind, meaning "in the best state or condition."

If you pronounce roof to rhyme with hoof, you're not alone. Millions of people all over the U.S. say it that way, though the pronunciation with the long o sound is more common.

You're not a true resident of Poca, West Virginia, if you're not cheering on the local high school, the Poca Dots.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brought us a puzzle based on one of his favorite party games: Taboo. If he gave you a series of terms that all match up with a certain word—like car, clock, burglar, and siren—what word would you say goes with them?

We got a call from Nan Sterman, host of the public television gardening show A Growing Passion, who writes so much about plants that she's looking for some alternatives to the verb to plant. But what to say if you don't want to sound pretentious or stilted? What about variations such as Stick that little guy in the soil, or Bury that gem in a pot?

Fair weather to you, and snow to your heels, is one way for Newfoundlanders to wish each other good luck.

The Fibber McGee drawer is that essential place where you quickly shove a bunch of junk when you need to clean up fast and don't have the time or care to organize anything. It comes from the old radio comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly, which featured a running gag in which Fibber had a closet crammed with junk that fell cacophonously to the floor whenever he opened it.

The high school in Hoopeston, Illinois, calls its teams the Hoopeston Area Cornjerkers, and in Avon, Connecticut, the Avon Old Farms Winged Beavers are a beloved hockey team. In case you're shopping for school districts.

A cataract is not only an eye condition, it's also a waterfall. And the two uses of the word are related, in the sense that in the ancient world, a cataracta was one of those iron gates that hung outside a city, such as Pompeii, to protect against invading hoardes.

A chemist who spent years working in the pharmaceutical industry sent us an amusing sendup of corporatespeak that begins, "It is what it is, so let's all reach out and circle the wagons…" Although his jargon-laden riff wonderfully satirizes such cliched writing, it's worth noting that many find the phrase circle the wagons objectionable.

Biting the bit, akin to champing at the bit, means someone's raring to go, or out of control.

Expressions like, I don't not like that, or, You can't not like being out are, are versions of litotes, a rhetorical device used for expressing understatement.

In Newfoundland, the word wonderful is often used as an intensifier for both positive and negative things. For example, a Newfoundlander might refer to something as a wonderful loss.

There's an old children’s ditty that goes, Mama had a baby and its head popped off, which you sing while popping the top off of a dandelion or similar flower.

Is there a word for when your favorite restaurant closes? What about goneappetit?

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Burn Bag (Rebroadcast) - 22 August 2016


Mon, Aug 22, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": Slang from the 19th century. The slang coming out of Victorian mouths was more colorful than you might think. A 1909 collection of contemporary slang records clever terms for everything from a bald head to the act of sidling through a crowd. Plus, how to remember the difference between CAV-al-ry and CAL-va-ry. And: what's the best way to improve how introverts are perceived in our society? For starters, don't bother asking for help from dictionary editors. Also, collieshangles, knowledge box, nanty narking, biz bag, burn bag, yuppies, and amberbivalence.

FULL DETAILS

Mind the grease is a handy phrase to use when you're trying to sidle through a crowd. It's found in 1909 volume of English slang called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Speaking of greasy, in those days something extravagant might be described as butter upon bacon.

If you're telling a story involving someone with an accent, and while relaying what so-and-so said, you imitate that person's accent, is that cool? If your retelling starts to sound offensive or gets in the way of good communication, best to try paraphrasing rather than performing.

Collieshangles is an old Scottish term for a quarrel, possibly deriving from the notion of two collie dogs fighting.

We've previously discussed the term going commando, meaning "dressed without underwear." It first appears in print in 1974, but likely goes back further than that. The scene in a 1996 episode of Friends, wherein Joey goes commando in Chandler's clothes, likely popularized the saying.

A Chicago-area listener suggests that approaching to a yellow traffic light and deciding whether or not to go for it might be described as amberbivalence. It's somewhat like that decision you face when coming toward what you know is a stale green light—do you gun it or brake it?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski wasn't savvy enough way back when to snag an email address like john@aol.com, but he was clever enough to come up with a game about apt email addresses that serve as a pun on the word at. For example, a prescient lawyer might have claimed attorney@law.com.

What's the difference between cavalry and calvary? The first of these two refers to the group of soldiers on horseback, and is a linguistic relative of such "horsey" words as caballero, the Spanish horse-riding gentleman, and cavalcade, originally a "parade of horses." The word calvary, on the other hand, derives from the Latin calvaria, "skull," and refers to the hill where Jesus was crucified, known in Aramaic as Golgotha, or "place of the skull."

Knowledge box is an old slang term for noggin; one 1755 describes someone who "almost cracked his knowledge box."

An introvert in Baltimore, Maryland, is unhappy with an online definition of introvert, and is speaking up about wanting it changed. The definition describes an introvert as someone preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings—such as a selfish person, or a narcissist. The problem is, Google's definitions come from another dictionary, and dictionary definitions themselves come from perceived popular usage. So the way to change a definition isn't to petition lexicographers, but to change the popular understanding of a term.

What's the female equivalent of a man cave? Some people are promoting the term she shed.

Ann Patchett, the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, among other books, has some great advice about writing. She says the key is to practice writing several hours a day for the sheer joy of getting better, and find the thing that you alone can say.

The term biz bag, meaning a bag to stuff your discarded items in, comes from an old commercial for Biz stain-removing detergent.

If you're looking for a little nanty narking, try going back to the 19th century and having a great time, because that's a jaunty term the British used for it back then.

Betamax players and hair metal bands may be trapped in the 1980's, but the term yuppie, meaning "young urban professional," is alive and well. Dink, meaning dual income, no kids, is also worth throwing around in a marketing presentation.

In the world of covert secret agents, a burn bag is the go-to receptacle for important papers you'd like to have burned rather than intercepted by the enemy.

A listener from Santa Monica, California, says he's going to mow something down, as in, he's going to eat a huge amount of food really fast. But when he writes it, he spells mow as mau, and pronounces it to rhyme with cow. Ever heard of this?

A fly-rink, in 19th-century slang, is a bald head—perfect for flies to skate around on!

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

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Bingo Fuel (Rebroadcast) - 15 August 2016


Mon, Aug 15, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": "If you come to a fork in the road . . . take it!" Baseball legend Yogi Berra was famous for such head-scratching observations.. What most people don't realize, though, is that the former Yankees star often wasn't the first person to say them. As Berra himself once quipped, "I really didn't say everything I said." Speaking of Yankees, do you know what a "Yankee dime" is?  Here's a hint: it's wet, made with love, and you can't take it to a bank. "It's all downhill from here, y'all"--which is not always a bad thing. Plus, nice vs. kind, premises vs. premise, a time-travelling word quiz, drunk as Cooter Brown, footing the bill, and some new words for the opposite of avuncular.

FULL DETAILS

It's such a delight to hear Yankee legend Yogi Berra deliver his Yogisms that it's easy to overlook the fact that he likely didn't make up most of them. Of course, that doesn't make lines like You can observe a lot by watching any less profound. But if you're interested in the accuracy of quotes attributed to him or someone else, start with linguist Garson O'Toole's Quote Investigator.

If someone's drunk as Cooter Brown, they're pretty darn intoxicated. The saying comes from the word cooter, meaning box turtle, and alludes to a turtle swimming around in its own drink.

Another great Yogism: It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.

A San Diego, California, listener shares some slang used by her father, who was a Navy fighter pilot. To bang off the cat is to take off from an aircraft carrier. The meatball refers to the landing system that requires lining up with an amber light. And bingo fuel is the exact minimum amount of fuel a jet needs to get back and land on its designated runway. Some of these terms pop up in a 1954 New York Times Magazine article called Jet-Stream of Talk.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has built a time machine for this word game that requires guessing the imaginary early version of nouns like sawhorse and cauliflower. If he gets caught in the machine, though, anything can happen!

The idiom two heads are better than one doesn't exist in quite the same form in Spanish, but there is a variation that translates to, "four eyes are better than two." In Hungarian, there's a phrase that's simply, "more eyes can see more." And Turkish has a saying that translates to, "one hand has nothing, two hands have sound."

A listener who works with computers asked about the difference between premise and premises, especially when it comes to the idea of on- or off-premises computing. Going back to the 1600's, the term premises has meant a "location" or "site," but along the way, we've allowed it be used with singular and plural verb forms. When cloud computing came along, there was no longer the need to reference multiple sites, but some people still use the plural form.

We say we foot the bill when we pay for something simply because when you're totalling up figures on an account ledger, the total comes at the bottom of the sheet—or, the foot.

With the idiom it's all downhill from here, the meaning depends on the context. With an optimistic tone, it means that something's heading toward an inevitably good ending, but there are times in business uses where it refers to an unhappy fate.

When asked about a popular restaurant, Yogi Berra supposedly replied: Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded. Actually, though, that saying has been around since before Berra was born.

Gary Provost, author of Make Your Words Work, made a career of offering great writing advice, including: "Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety."

What's the difference between the words kind and nice? It's perhaps best described as the difference between demeanor and. behavior. Being nice refers to how you appear to be, whereas kindness refers to how you act, and what you do for others.

A listener from Concord, North Carolina, sent along an example of why learning English as a second language can be so challenging: "Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough, thorough thought though."

When it comes to job titles, the prepositions of and for can seem interchangeable and arbitrary, but they mean slightly different things. Of, as in a Dean of Student Conduct, is in charge of a particular area by themselves, whereas a Vice President for Business Affairs would be someone who's been given responsibility for an area that technically falls under someone else's jurisdiction.

You know that moment when you get into the car and check your phone before driving off? One listener calls that her media moment.

It's common for Southern moms to promise their children a Yankee dime if they complete a chore. The thing is a Yankee dime is a motherly kiss -- much less exciting than an actual dime. It's a phrase that plays on Yankee thrift, and goes back to at least the 1840's.

We spoke on the show recently about the term avuncular, meaning like an uncle, and some listeners responded with terms for being like an aunt. Try out auntly—or avauntular, if you're looking to impress and/or alienate someone at the reunion.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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Spit Game (Rebroadcast) - 8 August 2016


Mon, Aug 08, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": People in ancient times could be just as bawdy and colorful as we are today. To prove it, we found some graffiti written on the walls in the city of Pompeii, and found plenty of sex, arrogance and good old fashioned bathroom talk etched in stone. Plus, British rhyming slang makes its way to our televisions through police shows on PBS. And a dictionary for rock climbers gives us a fantastic word that anyone can use to describe a rough day. Also, spitting game, hornswoggling, two kinds of sloppy joes, peppy sad songs, and endearing names for grandma.


FULL DETAILS

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., parts of the ancient city of Pompeii remained intact, including the graffiti written on its walls. Much of what was written, not unlike today's bathroom etchings, is naughty and boastful, with people like Celadus the Thracian claiming to be the one who "makes the girls moan."

A Tallahassee, Florida, mother who texted her daughter in a hurry accidentally asked about the "baby woes," meaning "baby wipes," and came to the conclusion that we need a new phrase: read between the autocorrect.

If you watch British police procedurals, you'll likely come across the term to grass someone, meaning "to inform on someone" or "to rat someone out." It’s a bit of British rhyming slang that originated with the 19th-century phrase to shop on someone. That gave us the noun shopper, which became grasshopper, and then got shortened to grass.

A Japanese version of the idiom the grass is always greener translates to "the neighbor's flowers are red."

The word hornswoggle, meaning "to embarrass" or "to swindle," is of unclear origin, but definitely seems of a piece with U.S. frontier slang from the 1830s and 1840s.

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game called Dictum wherein he gives us a word, like contrary or emasculate, and we have to guess the closest bold-faced word that comes after it in the dictionary. Tougher than you might think!

A listener whose first language is Farsi wonders if the name of the grandma in the classic film An Affair to Remember, gave us the endearment nanu, for grandmother. In Mediterranean countries, words like nanu, nana, nene and nona are all common terms for "granny."

Here's a truism that often appeared scribbled in ancient wall graffiti: I wonder, oh wall, that you have not yet collapsed. So many writers' cliches do you bear.

The term spitting game, meaning "to flirt," comes from African-American slang going back to at least the 1960's, when game referred to someone's hustle. It's well covered in Randy Kearse's Street Talk: Da Official Guide to Hip-Hop and Urban Slanguage.

Martha recalls that as an English major, she nearly memorized William Zinsser's On Writing Well. He died this month at age 92, and she'll remember this quote, among others: "Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is...I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me — some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field."

A listener from northern New Jersey says that in his part of the state, a sloppy joe was not the mashed-up ground beef sandwich many of us also know as a loose meat sandwich, spoonburger, or tavern. For him, a sloppy joe was a deli meat sandwich that consisted of things like pastrami, turkey, coleslaw, Russian dressing and rye bread.

Here's a lovely bit of ancient graffiti found on the wall of an inn: "We have wet the bed. I admit, we were wrong, my host. If you ask why, there was no chamberpot."

Pro wrestling, a fake sport with a very real following, has a trove of lingo all its own that can be found in the newsletter and website PW Torch. One saying, red means green, refers to the fact that a wrestler who winds up bloody will get a prettier payout for his or her performance. And kayfabe is a wrestler's character persona, which he or she often keeps up for any public appearance, even outside the ring.

A fan of Bruce Springsteen's song "Dancing in the Dark" called to say that she's noticed the lyrics are awfully sad for such a peppy tune, and wonders if there’s a word for this phenomenon. Lyrical dissonance would do the job, but there’s also the term agathokakological, a Greek-influenced word meaning "both good and evil."

One listener followed up our discussion of classic literary passages turned into limerick form by writing one of his own, a baseball-themed poem that begins, "There once was a batter named Casey."

Vermont is one place—but not the only one—where non-natives are referred to as flatlanders, and people who've been around generations proudly call themselves woodchucks. It’s written about on Shawn Kerivan's blog, Innkeeping Insights in Stowe.

The Climbing Dictionary by Matt Samet includes a fantastic term that can be used by non-climbers as well: high gravity day, a day when all routes, even easy ones, seem impossible due to a seeming increase in gravity.

The expression to a T comes from a shortening of tittle, a word meaning a little of something. The word tittle even shows up in the bible. There's also an idiom to the teeth, as in dressed to the teeth, or fully armored-up.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Pop Stand - 1 August 2016


Mon, Aug 01, 2016


When it comes to learning new things, what's on your bucket list? A retired book editor decided to try to learn Latin, and ended up learning a lot about herself. There's a word for someone who learns something late in life. And when it comes to card games, how is it that the very same game goes lots of different names? What you call Canfield, other people may call Nertz! Finally, a bit of vulture culture: Words for these birds depend on what they're doing: A kettle of vultures is swirling in the air, while a group of vultures standing around eating is called … a wake. Plus, cat's eyes, Bott's dots, dumpster fire, spagglers, Dan Ratherisms, pussle-gut, and let's blow this pop stand.


FULL DETAILS

A restaurant review in the Myanmar Times describes a steak that "could not have been more middle-of-the-road if it was glued to a cat's eye." This analogy makes sense only if you know that cat's eye is a term for the reflective studs in the middle of a road that help drivers stay in their own lanes.

Card games often go by several different names, like Canfield and Nertz, or Egyptian Racehorse and Egyptian Rat Screw, or B.S. and Bible Study. These names, and the rules for each, vary because they're more often passed from person to person by word-of-mouth rather than codified in print. Incidentally, the use of the word Egyptian in various card game names stems from the fact that playing cards supposedly originated in Egypt.

A woman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, say that there, if someone's fly is open, instead of saying XYZ for Examine Your Zipper, many people say Kennywood is open. Kennywood, it turns out, is a nearby amusement park.

A San Diego, California, woman is baffled by her husband's saying: If a frog had a pouch, he'd carry a gun. It has to do with wishing for the impossible, similar to the saying If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. It's one of many Dan Ratherisms, folksy sayings popularized by the Texas-born CBS newscaster.

The trendy term dumpster fire, meaning "a chaotically horrible situation," may have originated with sportswriters.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's quiz is a challenge to find the odd word out, etymologically speaking. For example, which word doesn't belong in the following group? Bigot, saloon, quiche, tornado.

In Spanish, mordida literally means "a bite," but it's a kind of bribe. It predates the English phrase put the bite on someone by more than a hundred years. One proposed etymology for the Spanish term is that divers rescuing treasure from wrecked Spanish galleons were allowed, on their final dive, to keep as many coins as they could bring up crammed into their mouths. Another story goes that the underlings of a Spanish nobleman collected a special tax to help pay for his extensive dental work, then simply continued the practice after the work was paid for. Both of these colorful stories are probably too colorful to be believed. Mordida! is also a popular cry at birthday celebration in parts of Latin America, where the birthday boy or girl is encouraged by cheering guests to plunge face first into a cake.

A listener in Abilene, Texas, says that his Maryland relatives always referred to asparagus as spagglers, so he was shocked when he got to college and realized no one else knew what he was talking about. This vegetable goes by lots of other names, including spargus, spiro grass, asper guts, dusty roots, and aspirin grass. In upstate New York, it's even called Martha Washington or Mary Washington.

No word if Dan Rather coined this phrase, but shakier than cafeteria jello describes something that's pretty jiggly indeed.

Is it a pitched battle or a pitch battle? Originally, a pitched battle was conducted according to traditional rules of warfare, which called for combat in a prearranged time and place. The pitch in this term has to do with positioning, in much the same sense as to pitch a tent.

Bott's dots are little round pavement markers, named for California highway engineer Elbert D. Botts.

Having retired as a New York book editor, and looking for a way to fill her time, Ann Patty embarked on the study of college-level Latin. She chronicles those studies and the life lessons learned in Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin. Someone who begins to learn late in life is called an opsimath. What's on your opsimathic bucket list?

A caller from Vermont says his Mississippi-born grandfather always called him a pussle-gut, and admonish him about an unseen wampus cat. The former, also spelled puzzle-gut, simply means "a fat or pot-bellied person," the pussle being related to pus, as in the bodily ooze. American folklore is full of stories about the wampus cat, a terrifying, hybrid mythical creature.  

A listener in Springfield, Illinois, recalls that an elderly relative would respond to the question "How are you?" with the answer Forked end down. By that, he meant, "I'm fine." If you've ever drawn a stick figure, you know that the forked end is where the feet are, so forked end down means someone's feet are firmly planted on the ground. In the American West, forked end up long referred to the unfortunate position of a rider thrown from a horse.  

A hike in San Diego's Mission Trails Regional Park has Martha pondering terms for turkey vultures. A flock of vultures in flight is called a kettle, a committee, or a volt, while a group of vultures feeding on carrion is called a wake.

Let's blow this popsicle stand is an adaptation of Let's blow this pop stand, meaning to leave a place, and in a way that's showy. Think Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

The glow in the eyes of some animals is called eyeshine, and the adjective that describes such shimmering in a cat's eyes is chatoyant, from French for "cat."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Punch List - 25 July 2016


Mon, Jul 25, 2016


Books for sale, books for free, and wisdom passed down through the ages. Libraries aren't just repositories for books -- they're often a great place to find gently used volumes for sale. Or you can always visit a "little free library," one of those neighborhood spot dedicated to recycling your own books, and picking up new ones for free. Plus: "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers" -- weighty proverbs from East Africa. Finally, the United States and the UK are separated by more than a common language: the way we talk about numbers is also surprisingly different, depending on which side of the pond you're on. Also: I don't know him from Adam, stargazy pie, my dogs are barking, and cheiloproclitic. Ruminate on that!

FULL DETAILS

The stunning play Our Lady of Kibeho, set in Rwanda, includes some powerful East African proverbs gathered by playwright Katori Hall, such as A flea can bother a lion, but a lion cannot bother a flea, and When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

A caller from Deer River, Minnesota, has lots of experience raising ruminants and wonders if the word ruminate, as in "to ponder or muse about something" stems from the image of such an animal chewing regurgitated cud. Indeed it does. In classical Latin, the word ruminare could mean either "to chew cud" or "to turn over in one's mind." Similarly, the English verb to browse originally referred to the action of an animal feeding on the buds and leaves of trees and bushes.

The phrase I don't know him from Adam suggests that if the person were standing next to the person in Western tradition thought to be earliest human being, the two would be indistinguishable. The phrase I don't know her from Adam can be used to refer to a woman who is similarly unrecognizable, but it's less common. Another variation: I wouldn't know him from Adam's off ox.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski invites us to a party to meet all of his dear "aunties" -- as in the "auntie" who makes sure your oily hair doesn't mess up the furniture.

Since the 1930's the term punch list has referred to a list of things to do, or a list of problems to fix. Although there are many proposed explanations for the origin of this term, none is definitive.

A caller from Tampa, Florida, talks about the eerie feeling she had when she heard an audio interview recorded with a speaker who at the time was unaware of his imminent death. She'd like a word to describe that feeling. Postalgia, maybe?

An Alabama woman says Minnesota-born husband has never heard an expression she's used all her life. The phrase is smell the patching, as in If he's not careful, he's going to smell the patching. The idea is that if you do something bad, it will catch up with you. In the early 19th century, patching was the piece of cloth used to tamp down gunpowder in firearms. If you're close enough to a battle to smell the patching, you're pretty darn close.

The Little Free Library movement offers a great way to unload some of your old books and discover some ones that someone else has left for the taking.

A listener in Hartford, Connecticut, is sure he's heard a word that means "an erotic attraction to lips." The word is cheiloproclitic, from ancient Greek words that mean "inclined toward lips." Grant offers a couple of other terms, jolie laide, French for "beautiful ugly," and cacocallia, from Greek words that mean roughly the same thing.

Those of us in the United States and Britain may be separated by a common language, but we're also separated when it comes to how we indicate numbers. A Numberphile video featuring linguist Lynne Murphy explains this in more depth.

If you think stargazy pie sounds romantic, you'd better be charmed by egg-and-potato pie with fish heads sticking out of it.

My dogs are barking means "My feet hurt" or "My feet are tired." As early as 1913, cartoonist Tad Dorgan was using the term dogs to mean "feet." If your "dogs" in this sense are "barking," it's as if they're seeking your attention.

In an earlier episode, we discussed visual signals used in deafening environments such as sawmills. One signal, developed in a textile mill, was holding up both hands, fingertips up and palms out, miming a gesture of pushing. That pushing motion translated to, of course, The boss, as in The boss is coming, so look sharp!

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Shakespeare's Insults (Rebroadcast) - 18 July 2016


Mon, Jul 18, 2016


If you don't have anything nice to say, say it like Shakespeare: Thou unhandsome smush-mouthed mush-rump! Thou obscene rug-headed hornbeast! The Shakespeare Insult Generator helps you craft creative zingers by mixing and matching the Bard's own words--perfect for the wanton swag-bellied underskinker in your life.  Plus, how do you feel when you say "Thank you" and the person replies "No problem"? That response bothers many people--but should it? Plus, what happens when a married couple doesn't gee-haw together. Also: the origins of shimmy and smidge, ham-and-egger, a techie word quiz, double possessives, and enough food to feed Coxey's army.

FULL DETAILS

For a compendium of slanderous Elizabethan expressions, try Barry Kraft's book, Shakespeare Insult Generator. There are more sources online for sneering Shakespearean phrases and randomly generated insults inspired by the Bard, perfect for the obscene rug-headed hornbeast in your life.

Don't capitalize names of seasons unless they're part of a proper noun, such as Summer Olympics or Spring Formal. Unlike the names of months and days of the week, seasons aren't eponymous, meaning they don't derive from proper names.

Here's a fun paraprosdokian: I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.

Swag is not an acronym for Stuff We All Get. In fact, most acronymic "etymologies" are complete hogwash. Swag, commonly used to mean "free stuff," goes back to the 1700's and refers to the ill-gotten swag, or booty, of a thief or pirate.

The Shakespeare Insult Generator tipped us off to a handful of booty-themed disses, including rump-fed, which refers to someone who is less than callipygian.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game of portmanteaus for the tech age, like a fanciful word for when you spend hours buying books online to the point where you're unconscious.

When two people can't gee-haw together, it means they don't get along. The terms gee-haw, or gee and haw, come from farming, where a trained animal obeys a command to go left or right--to gee or haw, in other words. Noncompliant animals don't gee-haw.

There's a hot debate going on about the use of no problem instead of you're welcome, in response to thank you. But there's nothing wrong with this phrase. The expression can't be broken down semantically to prove it's disrespectful; it's more a matter of what people are used to, and the differences seem to break down along age lines.

A ham-and-egger job, meaning a weak effort or a dud, comes from boxing, where a ham-and-egger fighter doesn't have much fight in him, it's just someone doing it to earn a meal. The idiom goes as far back as at least 1918, when it showed up in a U.S. Navy journal.

Perhaps you have a panic monkey in your life. That's someone who starts flailing their hands anytime they're nervous.

In 1894, the U.S. was in an economic depression, an Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey led a march on Washington to protest national economic policies. This motley crew came to be known as Coxey's army, and the phrases enough food to feed Coxey's army, or enough grub to feed Coxey's army, meaning "a whole lot of food," showed up in print soon after. Both Coxey's army and Cox's army have also been applied to any ragtag group, the latter influenced by a much bigger march on Washington in 1932, that was led, as it happens, by Father James Renshaw Cox.

You can spitball ideas all you want, but spiffball is not a real variation of the term.

A young woman in Charleston, South Carolina, owns a boa constrictor named Wayne, and wonders if it's correct to say that her father isn't a fan of Wayne's. Such double possessives are fine, and have been in use for centuries.

If you need a Shakespearean insult, there's always unhandsome smush-mouthed mush-rump.

A Fort Worth, Texas, hospital worker says she's forever telling her patients to move over on the gurney just a smidge or a tidge, and wants to know if they're real words. Smidge is a shortening of smidgeon; tidge is likely a mix of tad and smidge. She also wonders about the shimmy, meaning "to move," which comes from the name of a dance in the early 1900's.

Next time you're in a bar and in need of an insult, say it like Shakespeare: Thou wanton swag-bellied underskinker! An underskinker is an assistant tapster who draws beer for customers.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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Pebble Picker (Rebroadcast) - 11 July 2016


Mon, Jul 11, 2016


Right off the bat, it's easy to think of several everyday expressions that derive from America's pastime. Including right off the bat. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary catalogues not just those contributions but also more obscure terms like "pebble picker," and explains why a fastball is called a "Linda Ronstadt." Plus, as more transgender people are publicly recognized, there's a debate about which pronouns to use. And who in the world would give a one-star review on Amazon to … Herman Melville's Moby-Dick? Plus, the plural of hummus, tear the rag off the bush, to boot, synesthesia, paper stretchers, wet washes, and the verb to podcast.

FULL DETAILS

Right off the bat, you can probably name a long list of common idioms that come from baseball. For example, right off the bat. But how about some of the more obscure ones, like the Linda Ronstadt? In a nod to Ronstadt's song "Blue Bayou," her name is used in baseball to refer to a ball that blew by you. Paul Dickson has collected this and hundreds of other baseball terms in his comprehensive book, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary.

The plural of hummus isn't easy to pin down, because although the word's ending looks like a Latin singular, it's actually Arabic.  For waiters and party hosts serving multiple plates of hummus, it's not wrong to say hummuses, but plates of hummus will do just fine.

The Spanish idiom, arrimar el ascua a su sardina, literally means "to bring an ember to one's own sardine." It means "to look out for number one," the idea being that if a group is cooking sardines over a fire, and each person pulls out a coal to cook his own fish, then the whole fire will go out. So the idiom carries the sense not only of being selfish, but the effects of that selfishness on the larger community.

Something excellent can be said to tear the rag off the bush, or take the rag, and it likely comes from old Western shooting competitions, where the winner would shoot a rag off a bush. The Oxford English Dictionary shows examples in print going back to the early 19th century.

A listener in St. Cloud, Minnesota, reports that when she first started in the printing business, new employees would be hazed with the prank assignment of finding a "paper stretcher" to make a web—the big sheet of paper that newspapers are printed on—a little larger. There is, of course, no such thing, and sending someone to find one is just one of many ways to tease newbies. Also, strippers in the newspaper business are much tamer than the common stripper—it's just a term for those who prep images and copy for the printing plates.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski scoured Amazon for 1-star reviews of classic literature and turned them into a puzzle about some readers' questionable taste. For example, what novel isn't even about fishing, since a whale is a mammal?

The saying to boot comes from an Old English word bot, meaning "advantage" or "remedy." It's related to the contemporary English words better and best, so if something's to boot, it's added or extra.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, in a Supreme Court opinion no less, that "a word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used."

As more transgender people are publicly recognized, what pronouns should we use to describe them? The best thing to do is find a polite way to ask how someone would like to be addressed. Epicene pronouns like they, ze, and others have had a hard time sticking. A good starting place for exploring transgender issues is Laverne Cox's documentary The T-Word.

People with synesthesia have long been known to associate sensations like sounds with others, like seeing certain colors. New research suggests that color associations with certain letters—at least for individuals born after 1967—are largely influenced by Fisher Price fridge magnets.

One caller says his grandma's favorite parting phrase was See you in the wet wash! A wet wash was an old-fashioned facility for washing—though not drying—laundry.  But it's anyone's guess as to why someone would allude to soaked laundry when taking their leave.

We've spoken before about It'll be better when you're married, often used to console someone who just had a small scrape or cut. A Chicago-area listener wrote us to say that in such cases, her mom's phrase was Quick, get a spoon!

The word podcasting is commonly used to refer to making podcasts, but it's also used by some as the verb for listening to downloading or listening to podcasts. The language around podcasts has always been tricky since the format was released—Apple initially disliked the use of pod—and practitioners like the TWiT network advocated for netcast.

Every time Martha tries naming all 26 letters in the alphabet, she only comes up with 25. But she can't remember Y.

The exclamation crime in Italy is a variation of criminently, or criminy, both euphemisms for Christ.

In baseball, a pebble picker, or pebble hunter, is a fielder who picks up a pebble from the ground after a missed catch, as if to blame the pebble for his own error.  In the world at large, the term is a jab at someone who can never admit a mistake.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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There Once Was A Gal From (Rebroadcast) - 4 July 2016


Mon, Jul 04, 2016


Ever try to write a well-known passage in limerick form? It's harder than you think. How about this one:  "There once was a lady who's sure / All that glitters is golden and pure/ There's a stairway that heads up to heaven, it's said / And the cost of the thing she'll incur." Plus, the diacritical mark that readers of The New Yorker magazine find most annoying. And how do you really pronounce the name of that big city in Southern California--the one also known as the "City of Angels"? Also, clopening, Z vs. Zed, seeding a tournament, the wee man and Old Scratch, and a word game based on the novels of Charles Dickens.

FULL DETAILS

What do readers of The New Yorker complain about most when they write letters to the editor? Those two dots above vowels in words like cooperate and reelect. The diaeresis, as those marks are known, has remained in use at the magazine ever since the copy editor who planned on nixing it died in 1978, and the whole saga is chronicled in fellow New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris's new memoir, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

March Madness is over, but the confusion lingers as to why teams are seeded in tournament brackets. The best theory is that brackets resemble sideways trees, and the teams are spread out evenly so the best can prosper—just like a in a garden.

A Southernism we love: You might as well go out and let the moon shine down your throat. It means you're taking medicine that won’t be effective or eating something flavorless. Not to be confused with pouring moonshine down your throat, which would be both flavorful and effective.

Americans pronounce the letter Z like "zee," while those in other English-speaking countries say "zed." That's because Noah Webster proposed lots of Americanized pronunciations and this is one of the few that stuck. David Sacks' book Letter Perfect is a great resource for more on our alphabet.

Baristas and retail workers are all too familiar with the dreaded clopen shift. You're assigned to close the shop one night, then turn around and work the opening shift early the next morning.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game about Dirkens novels—that is, Dickens novels with one letter in the title changed. For example, what's the Dirkens novel about a domicile where tired orphans can take some time off work, or a shorter Dirkens novel that's just a listing of garnishes in cocktails?

A longstanding injunction against mentioning the devil by name is the reason why terms like Old Ned, Old Billy, and Old Scratch have come to be euphemisms for his unholiness.

Bonspiel is a word for a curling match, and derives from the Dutch term spiel, meaning "game."

Saying I feel, instead of saying I think or I suppose, is both prevalent and controversial, particularly among women. A Stanford study found that prefacing a sentence with I feel, instead of I think, is more likely to get others to really listen.

A favorite quotation from highly quotable Terry Pratchett: Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.

If you're looking for an alternative version of Hamlet's soliloquies, a member of our Facebook group has been turning famous passages from literature into limerick form with entertaining results.

Los Angeles, though founded by Spanish speakers, was very, very Anglo by the early 20th century. The "original" pronunciation of Los Angeles has been muddied for a long time.

Our lord of the literary limerick on our Facebook group doesn't stop with plays and novels. He also remixed song lyrics, like in this rendition of Stairway to Heaven.

When Scots use the term wee man, they're referring to the devil. The Dictionary of the Scots Language is a fantastic and free resource for all terms Scottish, including blethering skite or bladderskate, which is a great thing to call a chatty rascal.

The German idiom, Ich bin fast im Dreieck gesprungen! is a way of indicating that you're outraged. Literally, though, it means "I almost jumped in triangles."

One listener's term, tee-ella-berta, is among hundreds of euphemisms for the derriere, including tee-hiney, tee-hineyboo, and tee-hinder.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Shiver Me Timbers (Rebroadcast) - 27 June 2016


Mon, Jun 27, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": Careful what you criticize! Not long ago, some words that sound perfectly normal today were considered gauche and grating on the ear. If the complainers had had their way, we couldn't say the word "pessimism" or use "contact" as a verb! Also, we'll settle another debate once and for all: is it "a historic" or "an historic"? Plus, what are you doing for Inside-Out Day? Also, bed lunch, sweven, hinky, johnny gowns, the real meaning of shiver me timbers, and more.

FULL DETAILS

We get lots of calls and emails that take a pessimistic look at the way language changes-- which reminded us that the word pessimism itself, just 100 or so years ago, was derided by the curmudgeons of old. People thought the word pessimism was a lazy, inaccurate replacement for "despondency."

If you're looking for yet another reason to buy an infant a present, there's always Inside Out Day, which some people celebrate as the day when a baby has been out of the womb as long as they were in it.

Singultus, which comes from a Latin word for "sobbing" or "dying breath," is a fancy way of describing a not-so-fancy affliction: the hiccups.

Did pirates ever actually say shiver me timbers? And why would they be shivering in the Caribbean, anyway? Actually, this saying has nothing to do with being cold, and pirates probably didn't say it. The phrase goes back to the 1700's and was popularized in books such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Shiver, in this sense, means "to split in two." Shiver me timbers, in the imagined pirate lingo, refers to a storm or siege splitting the wooden beams of a ship.

A bed lunch is one way to refer to a late night meal, right before bedtime.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about the ties that bind various sets of three words. For example, what do essay, excess, and decay have in common?

The a historian vs. an historian debate has a pretty straightforward answer: a historian is the correct way to write and say it.

Lyricists take note: sweven is another term for a dream, which should come in handy when looking for words that rhyme with heaven, eleven, Devin, or leaven.

Hinky, or hincty, is a term going back to the 1920's that has meant both "snobbish" and "haughty," or, more commonly, suspicious. A police officer from Grove City, Pennsylvania, calls to say his older colleagues often use the word to describe someone who arouses suspicion.

Fever is often diagnosed with an indefinite article attached—as in, you have a fever—but it was some time between the 1940s and 1960s that we added the article. And in the Southern United States, it's still not uncommon to hear someone say they have fever.

Contact, when used as a verb, is another word that once prompted peeving. In fact, in the 1930s, an official at Western Union lobbied for a company-wide ban on the word, which he deemed a hideous vulgarism compared to the phrases get in touch with or make the acquaintance of.

"These days, a chicken leg is a rare dish" might sound like an odd thing to observe, but during World War II, it was among dozens of phonetically balanced sentences devised by researchers for testing cockpit transmissions and headphones in planes. The sentences use a wide variety of sounds, which is why they're still useful for testing audio today.

We have the word avuncular to mean like an uncle, but is there one word for describing someone or something aunt-like? Materteral is one option, though it's rarely used.

As author Terry Pratchett once said, "It's still magic if you know how it's done."

The slang term nation pops up several times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a reduced form of a mild swear word. The word damnation was euphemized as tarnation, which was later shortened to nation. Nation in this sense goes back to the mid-1700's at least, and can also mean "large," "great," or "excellent."

We spoke on an earlier show about insensible losses, a medical term for things like water vapor that your body loses but you don't sense it. That inspired a Sacramento, California, listener to write a poem with that title about great artists who go underappreciated.

Johnny or johnny gown, meaning hospital gown, is a term most associated with New England.  

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Sweet Dreams - 20 June 2016


Mon, Jun 20, 2016


In deafening workplaces, like sawmills and factories, workers develop their own elaborate sign language to discuss everything from how their weekend went to when the boss is on his way. Plus, English speakers borrowed the words lieutenant and precipice from French, and made some changes along the way, but not in ways you might suspect. Finally, how do you pronounce the name of the New York concert hall you can reach with lots of practice? Is it CAR-neg-ghee Hall … or Car-NEG-ghee? Plus, no great shakes, Gomer, a limerick about leopards, foafiness, and sleep in the arms of Morpheus.

FULL DETAILS

Try this tricky puzzle: Take the words new door and rearrange their letters into one word.

How do you pronounce the name Carnegie? The Scottish industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, pronounced it with an accent on the second syllable, as his namesake the Carnegie Corporation of New York takes pains to make clear. Good luck explaining that to New Yorkers, though. They may know that the famous concert venue is named in his honor, but it's become traditional to stress the first syllable in Carnegie Hall. In the 19th century, people would have encountered his name in print first rather than hearing it by radio broadcast and incorrectly surmised it was CAR-neh-ghee, not car-NEH-ghee.

A Dallas woman says that when she rebukes the advances of the courtly old gent she's dating, he apologizes with the words I'm sorry for losing my faculties. Using the term my faculties in this sense is not all that common, but understandable if you think of one's faculties as "the ability to control impulses and behavior."

Foafiness, which derives from friend of a friend, is the condition of knowing a lot about someone even though you've never actually met, such as when you feel like you know a friend's spouse or children solely because you've read so much about them on Facebook. But is there a term for "experiential foafiness," when you feel like you've visited someplace but then realize you've only read about it or seen it in a video?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a quiz based on what editors for the Oxford English Dictionary say are the 100 Most Common Words in English.

Is it okay use the word ask as a noun, as in What's our ask going to be? Or should we substitute the word question or request? Actually, the noun ask has handy applications in the world of business and fundraising, where it has a more specific meaning. It's taken on a useful function in the same way as other nouns that started as verbs, including reveal, fail, and tell.

A Burlington, Vermont, listener says that when he was a boy, his dad used to call him a little Gomer. It's a reference to the 1960's sitcom "Gomer Pyle," which featured a bumbling but good-hearted U.S. Marine from the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. As a result, the name Gomer is now a gently derogatory term for "rube" or "hick."

Glenn Reinhardt and his 8-year-old daughter Camryn of San Antonio, Texas, co-authored a limerick that makes clever use of the words leopard, shepherd, and peppered.
 
A native French speaker wants clarification about the use of the word precipice in English.

A listener in Lashio, Myanmar, reports that a term of endearment in the local language translates as "my little liver."  

In deafening industrial workplaces, such as textile factories and sawmills, workers often develop their own elaborate system of sign language, communicating everything from how their weekend went or to straighten up because the boss is coming.

The phrase no great shakes means "no great thing" or "insignificant." The term may have arisen from the idea of shaking dice and then having a disappointing toss. If so, it would fall into a long line of words and phrases arising from gambling. Or it may derive from an old sense of the word shake meaning "swagger" or "boast."  

A listener in Montreal, Canada, asks: How do you pronounce lieutentant? The British say LEF-ten-ant, while Americans say LOO-ten-ant. In the United States, Noah Webster insisted on the latter because it hews more closely to the word's etymological roots, the lieu meaning "place" and lieutenant literally connoting a "placeholder," that is, an officer carrying out duties on behalf of a higher-up.

Why doesn't an usher ush? The word goes all the way back to Latin os, meaning "mouth," and its derivative ostium, meaning "door." An usher was originally a servant in charge of letting people in and out of a door.

A San Diego woman says her mother always tucked her into bed with the comforting wish, Sweet dreams, and rest in the arms of Morpheus. This allusion to mythology evokes a time when people were more familiar with Greek myth, and the shape-shifting god Morpheus who ruled over sleep and dreams and inspired both the word metamorphosis and the name of the sleep-inducing drug, morphine.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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How We Roll - 13 June 2016


Mon, Jun 13, 2016


If you're serious about writing a memoir, what topics should you include, and what can you leave out? And how honest can you really be about the other people in your life? Some of America's leading memoirists wrote things they lived to regret. And: America's never faced the real possibility of a female president -- until now. So, what would be the male version of "First Lady"? First Laddie? First Dude? Plus, take me out to the ballgame: why those rows of benches are called bleachers, and why baseball fans sit in a place called the stands. Plus, cry uncle, servicing customers, Boaty McBoatface, GPS art, lawnmower parents, and names for toilet-paper rolls.

FULL DETAILS

What do you call the cardboard roll inside a roll of toilet paper? Many families have their own name for it, including der der and oh-ah, oh-ah.

The bleachers in a baseball stadium are the unshaded benches that get bleached by the sun. The word stands, on the other hand, derives a 17th-century use of stand meaning a place for spectators, who either sat or stood, and is an etymological relative of the word station. The grandstand is an area of pricier seats, covered by a roof. The term grandstanding derives from the practice of baseball players showing off in front of the highest-paying spectators sitting there.

A San Diego resident who grew up in Ethiopia wonders: If U.S. presidents' wives have always been referred to as the First Lady, what title is appropriate for the male spouse of a head of state? First Gentleman? First Dude?

GPS art is the creation of a few bikers and runners who track their trips with an app and then post the image of the route they traveled online. The results so far include electronic "drawings" of Darth Vader, Yoda, and characters from Game of Thrones.  

Scrabblepoor means "extremely poor," conjuring the image of farmers having to scrape together a living by literally scratching at the dirt. The word hardscrabble is more commonly used to describe such grinding poverty.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle requires you to spot the Missing Links. For example, what do the following three names have in common? Jefferson, Franklin, Washington.

A Greencastle, Indiana, caller is bothered when his colleagues talk about servicing a customer--and with good reason. Servicing a client has long been associated with prostitution. Serving a client is a better phrase.

Britain's new polar research ship is named RSS Sir David Attenborough, even though an online vote overwhelmingly chose the name Boaty McBoatface. Versions of this playful construction go back at least as far as a 1987 episode of the television show "Friends," with a reference to Hicky McHicks from Hicksville. Since the 1940's, the Mc- element has been affixed to words to indicate something "typical of its kind." Similar examples today, like Cutie McPretty and Helpy Helperton, have a teasing tone to them.

In the 19th century, saying a man had a sneaking notion mean he had affection for a woman but was too timid to reveal it.

That familiar comfort food most often called a grilled cheese goes by a few other names, including cheese toastie and cheesewich, the latter of which is a trademarked name.

The grip on a movie set is responsible for adjusting the lights, positioning and the camera, and ensuring safety. There are various picturesque explanations for this word's origin, but the truth is likely quite simple: it comes from the French word for "grip."

What are you obligated to put into and leave out of a memoir? What kind of consequences should you expect if you're completely honest about others in your life? Well-known writers, including Pat Conroy, Cheryl Strayed, Sue Monk Kidd, Anne Lamott, and Edwidge Danticat consider such questions in Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature.

The behavior of electricity has long been likened to that of liquid: it flows in a current, and can be turned on and off in a closed system. So it's not surprising that we talk of getting juice for a phone's a battery by plugging it into a charging station.

A silly joke about a parrot made the rounds of 19th-century American newspaper, and may be the source for our expression cry uncle, meaning "to give up."

Helicopter parents are so named because of their tendency to hover over their children's lives. A Kentucky listener who made an initial college visit with her son reports two variations that she learned from staffers:  Lawnmower parents, who mow down every obstacle in their way, and Black Hawk parents -- helicopter parents so aggressive they'll show up at the office of top college administrators ready to do verbal battle.

A Marietta, Georgia, listener says her high school English teacher challenged her to find words that start with un- or in- that mean the same thing with or without the prefix. The list includes ravel and unravel, flammable and inflammable, loosen and unloosen, and valuable and invaluable.

When it comes to the act of writing, E.L. Doctorow once said, it's "like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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Hector's Pup (Rebroadcast) - 6 June 2016


Mon, Jun 06, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": Sharing a secret language. Did you ever speak in gibberish with a childhood pal, adding extra syllables to words so the adults couldn't understand what you were saying? Such wordplay isn't just for kids--and it's not just limited to English. Also, memory tricks to hold onto those slippery words you always forget. And, what do you call your warm, knitted cap? Is it a beanie, a tuque, a toboggan, or something else? The answer has everything to do with where you live. Plus cutting a rusty, foundering on cake, hone in vs. home in, Jeezum Crow!, and triboluminescence.

FULL DETAILS

We heard from someone on the show a while back about what to call an ex-wife's new husband. Lots of listeners called in and wrote us with their suggestions, including husband-in-law and step-husband to relief pitcher, stunt double, and version 2.0.

If you've spent any time in the Vermont region, chances are you've heard the exclamation Jeezum Crow!, which is simply a euphemism for "Jesus Christ!"

Martha went on an overnight backpacking trip and came back with a new word: triboluminescence, which refers to the glow created by rubbing together two pieces of quartz. The tribo- is from a Greek root meaning "to rub," the source also of diatribe, which has to do with "wearing away" using words.

The verb to founder applies to horses that overeat to a dangerous extent. It's used by extension in less severe situations involving humans, such as children at a birthday party foundering on cake and ice cream.

Grant came across a lovely discussion on Metafilter about ways to denote farting. His two favorites: making a little wish, and love puff, used at that point in a relationship where you feel okay passing gas in front of your significant other.

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski, who belongs to the National Puzzlers' League, brought us a game inspired by the league’s newsletter. In this game, based on head-to-tail shifts, the first letter of a word moves to the back to form a new word, so if a boyfriend presented his girlfriend with a _______, she'd display a triumphant ________.

A listener in Greenville, Tennessee, wonders about how the word meta went from prefix to adjective. Meta is simply a word used to describe something that's about itself.

After we heard from a listener about the phenomenon of swiping our hands together after finishing a chore—which she calls all-done clappy hands—several others reached out to say that in Great Britain, they use the phrase done and dusted.

When getting closer to an objective, do you hone in, home in, zone in, or zero in? The phrase zero in goes back to World War II and the act of fixing on a target. Home in carries a sense of traveling to or being aimed at something,  but people often say hone in because it sounds correct—akin to sharpening a blade until it's just right.

Ineluctable, meaning inescapable, is one of those words Martha has to look up in the dictionary every time she sees it. But noting its Latin origin, luctari, meaning "to struggle," and therefore related to reluctant, will help.

Hector's pup, or since Hector was a pup, is another way to say, Oh, heck. The expressions go back to the early 1900's, when people were perhaps more familiar with the character of Hector from The Iliad.

Why tell someone they're sexy when you can let them know they're good as corn? That's what the Portuguese say, along with taking his little horse away from the rain, an idiom that means giving up.

Gibberish and its variants aren't just for goofy teens in the wayback of the station wagon. As Jessica Weiss notes in Schwa Fire, the online magazine about language, people all over the world speak various forms of it. Her article features sound clips of some examples.

Tuque, a primarily Canadian name for a warm knit hat, is related to the French word toque, the tall white hat that chefs wear. Take our Great Knitted Hat Survey and tell us what you call them.

In German, ein Korb geben--literally, to "give a basket"--means to "turn down a potential date." This idiom derives from a medieval legend about castle-dwelling woman. Instead of letting her hair down for a suitor she didn't fancy, she let down a large basket. He got in, and she pulled it only halfway up, leaving him there to be humiliated in front of the townsfolk.

Aught, meaning "zero," is one of those odd terms where the original version—naught—was heard as two words, so people started saying an aught. This same process, known as metanalysis, misdivision, and a few other names, happened with napron and nadder, which eventually became apron and adder.

I feel you fam, or I feel u fam, is a term that's been popping up on social media sites like Vine and YikYak to tell someone you relate to what they’re saying or dealing with, even though you're not actually family.

Cutting a rusty, used particularly in the U.S. South and South Midlands, refers to doing something mildly outrageous like shouting a naughty word or pulling a prank. It's likely related to the word restive, as in restive sleep, wherein someone's tossing and turning, and an old sense of rusty applied to horses to mean "hard to control or stubborn."

In Northern Ireland, a clever way to say that someone has an overinflated sense of his own importance is to say he's no goat's toe.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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